Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: F is for Fair Game (1986)

In what appears to be an inhospitable alien hellscape -- later to be revealed as the Australian outback in the light of day, a tripped out ‘77 Ford pick-up rumbles around in the dark of night, red headlights angrily glowing, spotlights flashing around, as if it were a massive predator hunting for prey. Turns out that’s exactly what the truck was doing when the vehicle suddenly turns and zeroes in on an unfortunate kangaroo too slow to get out of the way. Crash-cut to the following morning as we spy a woman on a horse galloping along until she notices evidence of the hunters: tire tracks, spent shells, and an injured baby kangaroo that managed to survive the night (-- her mother, not so much). This woman then schleps the bloodied animal back to her ramshackle homestead, which turns out to be the main headquarters of a sizeable wildlife preserve and animal rehab center run by the woman, Jessica (Delaney), and her husband, Irrelevant McGoo, currently away at a conference.

And after patching up the baby ‘roo, Jess heads into town with her faithful dog, Kyle, riding shotgun to report someone’s been poaching on their property. And she's soon to find out it was a grand total of three men who neglected to read the posted “No Hunting” signs or just didn’t care. (I’m betting on the latter.) We know this because these same three men harass Jess on the way to town, using the same monster truck to run her Ranchero off the road in a badly edited sequence that could be best described as a third rate dinner theater production of The Road Warrior (1981). Anyhoo, Jess limps into town and tries to report both the poaching and the attempted vehicular homicide but the local constable just tut-tuts her claims, saying she has no real evidence on the first charge, and he figures those rowdy boys meant no real harm and were just trying to have a laugh on the second. (Your tax dollars at work, folks.)

Speaking of those rowdy boys, we’re finally introduced to them proper when Jess moves on to the sundry to pick up her weekly supplies. Inside, she runs into Sonny (Ford), the ringleader of the trio, who tries to play nice and make up for the incident on the road by buying one of Jess’s wildlife paintings displayed at the store. Jess, in turn, jacks up the price to cover the repair costs of her broken windshield. And when she tries to leave, she’s ambushed by the other two louts outside, Sparks (Who) and Ringo (Sanford). And while Sonny looks almost normal, these other two degenerates look like a couple of rejects from a Duran Duran video (-- circa Wild Boys). But as Sonny said, don’t judge a book by its cover as he will prove the most cunning and dastardly and most-outright bastard of them all.

But, we’re getting ahead of the plot a bit as it turns out these three have been hired by the local ranchers to curb the kangaroo population. Here, Jess reminds them all wildlife on her property are protected by law and to keep out or else. And at that point, it’s too bad Sonny overheard Jess saying she will be all alone out there in the middle of nowhere for the foreseeable future. And even though the creep deserved it, too bad she horked off Ringo by dumping an entire sack of flour into his face when he took an unsolicited photo of her private parts. (Our girl Jess likes to go Commando if you know what I mean.) And too bad all three men have a thing for knocking uppity women who can’t take a joke down a few pegs into their rightful place. Which explains why, after she returns home and tends to her recuperating menagerie, Jess finds one of her charges dead, drowned in a rancid pond.

Writing it off as an accident, Jess doesn’t notice the empty cigarette wrapper near the water’s edge. (The same brand Sonny smokes.) Thus, she heads into the house, strips bare to beat the insufferable heat, and settles in for a nap. But after a fitful sleep, she heads into the kitchen, puts the kettle on and hits the fridge, where she finds a Polaroid of her naked self sleeping on her bed -- meaning at least one of those cretins were in her house. And while the ball was already kinda rolling down a very familiar cinematic incline for a lone woman’s revenge on a pack of assholes, this intrusive incident will definitely accelerate things down a very dangerous and deadly and somewhat surprising path of ever-escalating payback...

Like it or not, the Rape and Revenge plot is a staple of exploitation cinema. And when I first stumbled upon Mario Andreacchio’s Fair Game (1986) in the video aisle long ago in the long, lost and extremely lamented Video Kingdom’s massive Action section, that is exactly what I thought I was getting myself into -- especially when the back of the VHS box showed a woman, half-naked, bound and gagged, and strapped onto the hood of a speeding truck so tricked out I, for a sec, thought this was also gonna be a post-apocalyptic tale of rape and revenge. But to balance that salacious image out, the blurb promised she would overcome this horror and gain her revenge on those who did that to her. SOLD!, said I, as I scurried for the checkout counter.

Now, I kinda had a similar experience when I first rented Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend (1978), another flick from Down Under, which was found in the exact same VK Action aisle, whose VHS box sold it to me as a sordid nature’s revenge flick. And so, with visions of stuffed animals attacking hapless humans I pushed play on that tape only to find I had been misled -- and misled into something truly fascinating as the implications of that terrible couple’s horrific actions and the way nature eased them into their own self-destruction still haunts me to this very day. And while Fair Game’s aspirations weren’t quite that high, the film has quite a few surprises in store for you as someone kinda forgot one of the Rs in the Rape and Revenge formula.

So instead of getting Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973) or I Spit on Your Grave (1978) with a Brian Trenchard-Smith twist, we get something more akin to The Most Dangerous Game (1932) -- or, better yet, The Naked Prey (1965), but only in reverse. But make no mistake, Jess is still violated on many levels. She is harassed, suffers a massive amount of property damage, resulting in the deaths of a lot of her animals, she is physically assaulted, more than once, and is turned into an ersatz hood ornament. But where Fair Game differs from the normal formula, is what Jess does to answer each and every one of those attacks on her, which only escalates things even more.

And that is what makes Fair Game different and kinda interesting as the plot becomes a battle of wits and a conflict of wills instead of it just being the female protagonist accumulating enough hit damage until a revenge achievement is unlocked, she powers up, and then kills everyone in the room. In fact, one could argue that Jess’ retaliatory actions are what causes the deadly escalation. I don’t quite buy that as the villains are too rote. In fact, this angle would’ve been better served if Sparks and Ringo weren’t so cartoonish and more like the cold and calculating Sonny, who, for the briefest of moments, appeared to be an OK guy as he tries to warms up to Jess until she finds out what he does for a living. He’s kind of a proto Mick Taylor, played beautifully by John Jarrett in Wolf Creek (2005).

As is, then, the tit for tat retaliations begin as mere annoyances, beginning when Jess heads to a neighbor’s house to use their phone and report the break-in. (Her phone is out, and whether the trio did it to isolate her even further or the service just sucks is kind of up in the air.) But the neighbor isn’t home. However, the three blokes he hired to clear the kangaroos off his land are, currently shredding that painting Sonny bought with an M-16. When offered a shot at it herself, Jess blows Ringo’s Polaroid camera to pieces instead. Strangely enough, Sonny pulls the plug at this point and lets the woman peacefully go on her way.

But the following morning, Karen finds a dead kangaroo carcass in her truck -- a truck that will no longer start. To pay them back, she sneaks into their campsite that night while they sleep off all the booze they drank and uses their own portable blow-torch and welder to meld their weapons into some avant garde art. But she didn’t get all the guns, as the following morning they rumble into her compound and proceed to shoot holes in and flatten most of it, killing most of the animals in her care, before capturing her, which leads to the films most notorious scene as Sparks uses a hunting knife to shred her clothes while Ringo lashes her to the hood of “The Beast” -- their nickname for the truck, and then give her a wild ride that ends with a fade to black as she mercifully passes out.

When the scene fades back in we find an unfettered Jess regaining consciousness back at the ranch, battered, bruised, but apparently unmolested, which is another twist on the usual formula. Like with the Sawyer clan in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), there was no sexual component to their dastardly deeds; it was strictly a culinary exercise. The same could be said for the villains in Fair Game. They are perverts and sadists but they are only interested in the perversion of the hunt and only *ahem* ‘climax’ with the eventual kill; they’re like cats, futzing with a mouse before they eat it. Jess is a fly and they are currently pulling off her wings. They push it to the very edge but then back away, short-circuiting the usual titillating voyeuristic expectation of the audience for such things. (Yes, that’s me raising my hand.)

And then things really get out of hand as a traumatized Jess tries to make it into town on foot and nearly kills Sparks while trying to steal their cargo van. And while they try to chase her down for this affront, she then nearly kills all of them in a triggered rockslide. Things escalate further when her horse, found after it had run-off during the initial attack on the compound, is shot out from under her by Ringo. From there, Sonny tracks Jess back to what’s left of her compound. And ready to end this for good, they proceed to demolish the rest of it to flush her out with every intention of killing her. But little do they know, Jess has been busy laying a few traps of her own.

While different in new and interesting ways, I would hesitate to call Fair Game a good film. It’s an odd film, interestingly odd, and definitely entertaining, but still kinda odd. There are some huge pacing issues, some really bad edits during the action sequences, and the plot gets a little too lather, rinse, repeat as it appeared to be on a ten-minute cycle of the bad guys would do something, the heroine would retaliate, they would attack the house, she would evade, riding, running, or walking for miles, but then magically be back at the house in seconds. It gets to the point where you kinda wish both sides would just quit dicking around with each other and get on with the murder and mayhem already. And while the script works hard to make Jess a proactive player and not a damsel in distress, there are still a lot of instances of an objective, peeping tom camera ogling every square inch of her body when bare -- whether the bad guys were around or not.

Fair Game would be the feature film debut of both director Andreacchio and screenwriter, Rob George, who came from the world of documentaries. Again, they had some problems. But one of the film’s big plusses is it looks fantastic and was shot with the usual Australian sense of ferocity and a keen eye for speed and framing the beautiful but isolating landscapes to enhance the action and suspense. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie went on to win an Academy Award for shooting Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mention should also be made of Ashley Irwin’s eccentric electronic score. It comes off a little obnoxious at times but it really helps to glue things together and, along with some excellent sound design, keeps the film’s momentum ominous and moving forward, helping to alleviate some of that repetitiveness.

In front of the camera, Cassandra Delaney does a great job with her character. She is beautiful, very athletic, and very brave when you consider some of the stunts and close calls she endured during the shoot by what we see onscreen. You buy it when she’s frightened. You buy it when she stands up to these creeps. And you even buy it when she starts MacGyvering up some elaborate death-traps, braining people with an iron, and chucking fence-posts around like spears, as the hunters become the hunted when they finally come upon a too formidable prey. Peter Ford’s Sonny, meantime, was a bit of a cipher; he’s a sociopath, and Ford plays him coolly instead of eating the furniture, but probably could’ve used a bit more explanation as to why his hatred of Jess went from zero to 60 in like ten seconds. As for the other two boobs, which basically rounds out the WHOLE cast of the film, they’re fine as the deranged goons but, again, the film might’ve been better served if they’d taken it down a notch in both character and wardrobe.

And you know what? There’s one more character we need to talk about: The Beast. Fitted with a bunch of customized silver exhaust tubes, the anthropomorphized horns and demonic grin it affects makes the vehicle resemble the offspring of Christine (1983) and the semi-truck from Duel (1981). Add in those beastly red headlights and the modified exhaust system that belches smoke and snorts when revved, it only ratchets up the tension that’s already at a fever pitch. And on a character note: you would also believe those two idiots, Sparks and Ringo, saw Mad Max (1979) and The Road Warrior (1981) and modified their vehicle to look like something straight out of that movie in an effort to be badass.

Sadly, Fair Game kinda marked the end of an era of genre filmmaking in Australia. It definitely belongs in that gonzoid stretch of awesome from Down Under. It’s an exploitation thriller that is actually more interested in being suspenseful than sleazy. And while that may be counter-intuitive to some, I found it to be a pretty interesting change of pace from the standard female revenge story.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's six down with 20 to go! Up next: A Gorilla at large on a Red Letter day.

Fair Game (1986) Australian Film Commission :: The Southern Films International :: Nelson Entertainment / P: Harley Manners, Ron Saunders / D: Mario Andreacchio / W: Rob George / C: Andrew Lesnie / E: Andrew Prowse / M: Ashley Irwin / S: Cassandra Delaney, Peter Ford, David Sandford, Garry Who, Don Barker

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