Monday, October 22, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Thirst

Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri) awakes in a coffin and starts screaming her head off. Further investigation determines she’s in a gloomy cellar. It’s all very gothic. She ascends some rickety wooden steps, but the door at the head of them is locked. In voiceover, someone warns that this type of “conditioning” could damage her sanity. Someone else responds that she’s already very different to the “subject” they were observing a week ago.

Flashback said week: Kate is living a normal if rather privileged life as a successful businesswoman in an affluent Australian suburb. She’s dating Derek (Rod Mullinar), who’s an architect the same way that Richard Gere in ‘Intersection’ is an architect. One day she discovers a milk carton in her fridge that contains blood, not milk. Next thing, she’s drugged and kidnapped. She wakes up at a remote establishment known as “The Farm”, run by a mysterious organisation known as “The Brotherhood”. The Farm is filled with docile types who, it turns out, have been chosen for their healthy constitution and are being “milked” (i.e. exsanguinated).

The Brotherhood’s hierarchy – Mrs Barker (Shirley Cameron) and Dr Fraser (David Hemmings) – are at loggerheads and a power struggle is clearly in process. Kate is essentially kept prisoner, and yet held in fearful regard by the “donors”. It transpires that she’s descended from Elizabeth Bathory and as such has been chosen to merge her bloodline with that of the aristocratic Mr Hodge (Max Phipps) and therefore create something of a vampire super-race. Kate isn’t entirely enamoured of this scenario, resists Dr Fraser’s programme of conditioning and tries to fight back against the matronly Mrs Barker. Consequently Mrs Barker eschews Dr Fraser’s softly-softly approach and subjects Kate to harsher treatment. Drugged, Kate wakes up screaming in a coffin and, hey everybody, this is where we came in.

Right, then: any guesses as to how much of the film the business above accounts for. Three quarters of an hour? An hour? Longer?

Seventeen minutes.

‘Thirst’ – directed by Rod Hardy, most of whose work is for the small screen – almost trips over itself rushing to play its hand. Plenty of filmmakers would have kept the Bathory reveal under wraps for at lease half of the running time; likewise the revelation of what happens to the so-called donors in the generically monikered “processing plant”. Hardy, working from a screenplay by John Pinkney, seems to want all the cards on the table – narrative, exposition and imagery – so he can get stuck into the centrepiece, a bizarro 20-minute let’s-fuck-with-the-heroine’s-mind sequence that comes on like the brainwashing scene from ‘The Parallax View’ crossed with one of the more psychedelic episodes of ‘The Prisoner’ (in fact, The Farm resembles The Village in some respects).

During the course of these 20 minutes, we have dream sequences that bleed into each other, the manipulation of Kate’s memories, and a finale involving a room tilting and tearing itself apart as if Merrin and Pazuzu were duking it out over the soul of some pre-pubescent girl. Cracks open in walls, doors are battered to within an inch of their frames, books fly off shelves, chandeliers plunge from the ceiling, heavy furniture goes skidding across the floor, a candlestick turns into a glowing chunk of hot metal, plaster dust covers everything and at the end of it, Kate huddled in a corner terrified, a tankard of warm fresh somehow appears next to her.

There are two things that would normally bother me in all of this. The suggestion, since Hardy cuts to Mrs Barker studying video footage of Kate’s psychological disintegration, is that The Brotherhood have created a false room and rigged it with a variety of devices to simulate a supernatural assault; such a room would need to be contained in a larger space and supported by hydraulic arms to in order create the illusion of the room tilting and also to facilitate the damage to the walls etc. Yet (a) a fucking tankard of blood appears from nowhere without a drop being spilled; and (b) the final shot of the sequence has a collapsed curtain reveal a view of the grounds from a bay window, confirming that the room is an integral part of the building’s architecture.

So why don’t these two mise-en-scene cheats bother me? Because, by this point, ‘Thirst’ had jettisoned all pretensions to form, structure, logic and coherence. The film, simply, becomes a fever dream in the way of ‘Suspiria’, only with a blood farm instead of a ballet school, and does so very early on in the proceedings. Weirdness permeates. The film trades in almost amusingly incongruous images: a smiling hostess leads some visiting blood-drinkers through a tour of the processing plant – one of them raises a camera and clicks a snapshot like a tourist in the Vatican; members of The Brotherhood greet each other with their pinkie fingers upraised for all the world like a bunch of tea-sipping Noel Coward characters; a technician walks through a lab with a crate of blood-filled bottles, like a milkman with an extra order for Vlad the Impaler’s house. 

There’s a punch-drunk atmosphere to ‘Thirst’ which works beautifully in its favour, leeching away the otherwise distracting deficiencies of Contouri’s performance (standard MO: eyes roll, head wobbles, lower lip quivers) and the script’s leaden dialogue. Thus what could have been a tedious movie, endlessly circling in a slow waltz with its one single idea, emerges as a cult oddity that bleeds into your subconscious and is guaranteed to make you think twice before you reach for a carton of milk.

No comments: