OCT09 – 2014

GUEST POST: A SHARK IN THE DESERT

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Before producer Peter Brennan became known as the father of tabloid television, he wrote a book called Razorback, in which an evangelical animal rights activist, Beth Winters, goes after an Australian company turning kangaroos into dog food. What she doesn’t know is that the mob is using the company as a front to smuggle diamonds to Hong Kong. She takes a trip out to confront the hunters who kill ‘roos by immobilising them with a shot to the leg or hip (a “butt-shot”) so they don’t die and become too stiff to skin easily before the hunters come back for them, and inadvertently stumbles into the mob’s business.

In one of the more gruesome examples of fridging a girlfriend, Winters is repeatedly raped and tied to a tree in the Outback by the two worst hunters, on mob orders, where she is eaten by a monster boar — a freak hybrid of the domestic black pig, the Asiatic hog and the Asian striped hog. The rest of the book interweaves the plot of local pro-hunter Jake Cullen, whose son was killed by a similar freak boar; Ginny Winters, Beth’s sister, seizing the opportunity to get her share of the spotlight after years in Beth’s shadow; and Gene Taylor, Beth’s husband, who goes out there to find her but finds himself embroiled in a morass of diamond smuggling and police corruption.

The titular boar is almost irrelevant.

Then Russell Mulcahy came along, a mere three years after the book was published, and made his award-winning 1984 movie adaptation. He would later make the first two Highlander movies (I know), a whole bunch of music videos and MTV’s Teen Wolf, but nothing quite like the surreal smörgåsbord of astounding cinematography in which the real monsters are humans who have internalized an almost unimaginably harsh environment.

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Just as Jaws, to which Razorback has been compared, extracted the most pertinent parts of the book on which it was based, screenwriter Everett De Roche (who died in April this year) ditched all the sub-plots about the sister, the mob, police corruption and diamond smuggling. He compressed the timeline, so the same pig that killed Cullen’s son (now grandson) is the one who eats Beth Winters, rather than a similar freak.

He took this monster hybrid pig, infested with parasites, driven to insane cannibalism by constant, ravenous hunger, and made him the focus, as he deserved.

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Beth Winters is still fridged, but this time because Benny and Dicko Baker (played with devilish creepiness by Chris Haywood and David Argue) are sociopaths who don’t like being told shooting ‘roos is bad. Sarah Wagner (now Sarah Cameron), who is 16 years old and caring for her dying mother in the book, becomes the love interest for Taylor (now Carl Winters) that Ginny had been. Jake Cullen, the hunter who has never butt-shot an animal in his life, remains Jake Cullen: he’s the only character whose arc remains almost entirely unaltered.

Whereas the book was a dense, complex, often under-paced political thriller with added monster mayhem, the movie is a tightly plotted, self-contained gem of a horror in which Mulcahy uses his talent for lighting and atmospherics to great effect. The Outback itself becomes a major player. There is a deep sense, in the world of the movie, of the Outback as a fierce influence that will either polish a person into a gemstone or break him into a weird, mutant, near-unrecognisable creature. The battle for Carl isn’t so much about finding out how and why his wife was killed, but to survive this boiling cauldron of heat, desert and blood and come out as something other than a monster himself.

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Cullen, played by Bill Kerr, who also sadly died this year, is the source of the movie’s tagline — “it has two states of being… dangerous or dead” — and is arguably the real hero of the movie. Kerr is excellent as the tough, aged hunter still grieving over the loss of his grandson and embittered by years of almost no one believing his story.

Roche echoes the death of Azaria Chamberlain, the baby snatched by a dingo, in Cullen’s arc. Cullen’s community displays similar outrage and blame to that levelled at Lindy Chamberlain. Cullen is driven to distance himself from people. He resembles Robert Shaw’s memorable Quint, with a touch of the Ahab about him, tempered by his relationship with Sarah, who at least doesn’t disbelieve his story of the monster pig. By isolating himself from a community driven into collective insanity by the Outback, and facing his environment on its own terms, he is the only character who achieves any real form of redemption.

Mulcahy cherry-picked some key scenes from the book. These are mostly where the boar is key, such as the scene at the waterhole, where Cullen sees the boar for the first time. Another is a scene at the same waterhole where Cullen sees the boar for the last time. There’s no CGI in this film, everything is done with physical effects. The boar is clearly constructed, but even that works — there are a lot of real pigs used, and the mutant boar isn’t supposed to look like other pigs. It’s a monstrous, 2 tonne landshark that can toss a drinking trough with ease, and which has become the dominant boar for hundreds of miles primarily so it has an easy food supply in the form of its own young.

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Other scenes have been added. There is a stunning sequence in which Carl is escaping across the desert, driven to hallucination by dehydration and heatstroke. Mulcahy uses dreamy imagery and haunting synthpop from Icehouse front Iva Davies to evoke a surreal landscape of animated skeletons and a consuming desert. In this sequence the desert, the Outback, and the boar are the same thing in different masks, implying the only guaranteed escape is flight.

The final sequence takes place in the PetPack cannery. This is a steam-filled, technologically-backward nightmare of dim blue lighting, meat hooks, swinging chains and what is effectively a giant garbage disposal unit, around which Dicko capers like some kind of demented imp.

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There are many reasons to recommend this movie. Sarah Cameron is a strong, capable young woman who is living by herself in a hostile environment while conducting scientific research. She is not a shrinking violet who needs a man to rescue her. Beth Winters may end up fridged, but at least she’s out there of her own volition, doing something she believes is important. She is killed because of her choices and her actions, not merely because it’s an easy hook to get the male protagonist involved. It’s a shame that informative difference in surname between Beth and Carl was dropped, but she’s still the determined campaigner who knows her mind.

Carl isn’t your typical gung-ho hero, either. He’s largely helpless in the face of an alien environment, a city-slicker used to the corporate jungle who struggles even to stay alive. If anything, he shows less agency than Beth; reacting to situations and relying on others to prescribe or delimit his actions. Again, there’s a sense that this is a world in which survival comes from a degree of passive acceptance, that the Outback is so hard and unforgiving any attempt to rule or control it will be met with abject failure. The only way to succeed is to work with its strengths and exploit its weaknesses, but doing that means letting some part of it inside you, where there’s a chance it may fester.

This isn’t a happy-ending movie, like Jaws; or a comedy, like Chaw, to which it has also been compared. It’s not super-slick and it doesn’t have some deep philosophical message about the state of our environment. It does something else: it depicts a place in which the line between living and dead is a thin, ever-present trip hazard on a slippery slope, and in which staying alive can and frequently does mean surrendering some of what is commonly thought of as essential to being a good person.

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Razorback was released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 2005 and on Blu-Ray in May 2014. The Blu Ray includes a new 70 minute documentary featuring interviews with Mulcahy, producer Hal McElroy, Haywood and Iva Davies. It’s currently available on import in the USA and the UK and from Umbrella Entertainmnet in Australia.

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Sam Fleming is a spec-fic writer and scientist living in the North East of Scotland, where it’s all too easy to believe there are things living in the seafog locally known as the Haar. Sam’s stories have been published in Black Static, and by Dagan Books and NewCon Press. Find her at www.ravenbait.com and ravenfamily.org/sam.

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