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UNDER THE RADAR – Android and Razorback

September 6, 2012

Little film gems which escaped wide attention and perhaps yours too.

Under The Radar is a semi-regular post in which I bring to light little-seen films, which got lost in the crowd due to lousy distribution or were misunderstood at the time of their release, but which deserve to be seen for one reason or another.

This week, two more features from debut directors.

First up –

ANDROID (1982)

Directed by Aaron Lipstadt. Written by James Reigle and Don Opper. Produced by Mary Ann Fisher. Executive Producer Rupert Harvey. It stars: Klaus Kinski, Don Opper, Norbert Weisser, Kendra Kirchner, Crofton Hardester and Brie Howard. Running time: 80 mins

Aboard an isolated research station, an android who yearns to be human dreams of visiting Earth. His idealized views of humanity are questioned when a trio of violent criminals seek refuge aboard the station, creating mayhem.

Why it’s worth seeing:

There were two ‘what it means to be human’ android films released in 1982. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was the high-profile (and universally derided) of the two.

The other was Android.

Produced on a fraction of Scott’s budget, Aaron Lipstadt’s first feature was the critical darling of the time – in that it was compared favourably with Blade Runner.

Co-written by Don Opper, as an acting vehicle for himself, the film was made by a bunch of young filmmakers who had previously been in the employ of Roger Corman. Opper had been a production supervisor on Galaxy Of Terror. While Lipstadt had worked on Forbidden World as 2nd unit director.

As Lipstadt revealed in an interview in the February 1983 issue of Fantastic Films Magazine:

“We’ve all been involved with R-rated horror films and have become tired of doing very violent movies. We wanted something that would stress character and drama. It has a small cast and doesn’t have a monster or robot going crazy. It’s a drama … a dramatic story.”

As Corman himself felt Android lacked the requisite exploitation elements normally attributed to his company (the gigantic maggot rape scene in Galaxy Of Terror for example), he pretty much left Lipstadt and his buddies alone to do their thing, so long as they kept the schedule and budget short and low and provided enough action beats so Corman could cut together an effective trailer.

The film was a co-production between Corman and Aaron Lipstadt, Rupert Harvey and Barry Opper (Don’s brother) and was financed by a group of mid-west investors for $250,000, with an additional $250,000 worth of equipment hire and studio facilities provided by Corman’s New World Pictures. The film was shot in twenty days and from prep to screening, took just six months to complete.

Don Opper (best known for a recurring part in the subsequent Critters franchise) plays the central role of Max the android with a touching blend of sensitivity and humour. His performance is all the more remarkable considering it’s the first time he had appeared in a film, let alone playing the lead.

According to Opper, the film is basically “a coming-of-age teenage angst thing”.

Which is actually quite an apt description.

As the lecherous Doctor Daniel, Klaus Kinski is his usual creepy self. When he realizes there is a woman among the trio of new arrivals, he lays on the charm thick and sleazy and we begin to suspect this behaviour is not that far removed from Kinski himself. Famous off-screen for his death threats (“One bullet for you, one bullet for me”) and volatile temper (as demonstrated in Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend), Kinski’s ‘bordering on unhinged’ demeanour readily lends itself to his on-screen personas. His refusal to rehearse or even block scenes with the other actors in Android creates a heightened sense of unpredictability in his performance. He barges through scenes with all the grace of a sociopath – but it works for this particular character.

The rest of the cast were relative unknowns at the time. Norbert Weisser had appeared in Allan Parker’s Midnight Express, while Crofton Hardester had come from television. Brie Howard was a drummer for an all-girl band in LA when she was hired for the part of Maggie. It was her first and only acting role.

Production design, visual effects, cinematography and editing are all low-key, but work well considering the budgetary limitations – with the exception perhaps of the simplistic synth score by Don Preston (who played with Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers Of Invention) which at times intrudes a little too much.

And it’s interesting to note, James Cameron has a design credit on the film. After the debacle of Pirahna II:The Spawning, Cameron found himself back in LA – physically exhausted and financially broke and returned briefly to Corman’s employ (while he was writing The Terminator) and supplied some design sketches for Android.

He designed the spacecraft – as well as the film’s logo:

Wrongly dismissed as a Corman exploitation picture, Android had a difficult time finding a distributor in the US. It was only when it screened at the Seattle and London film festivals and several European film festivals, including the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival, that a distributor was secured and it received any kind of release in the US.

At the time of its release, there wasn’t really an independent movie circuit in the states as such (as there would be five or ten years later) which meant it would have to compete for screens with big studio pictures.

Unfortunately, because there wasn’t really a market or an audience for what would later be considered a festival movie, the film failed to make any substantial profit for the investors.

However, despite this, Android demonstrates you don’t necessarily need a multi-million dollar budget in order to tell an engaging sci-fi story with likeable characters.

Well worth a look.

Next up –

RAZORBACK (1984)

Directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander). Screenplay by Everett De Roche (Patrick, Road Games), based on the novel by Peter Brennan. It stars: Gregory Harrison, Bill Kerr, Arkie Whiteley, Chris Haywood, David Argue and Judy Morris. Running time: 95 mins.

The husband of a missing American animal rights campaigner searches the Australian outback for clues to his wife’s disappearance. His quest for answers soon becomes a fight for survival against man and beast and the very outback itself.

Why it’s worth seeing:

Notice how I made no mention of a giant marauding pig in the plot summary there?

And that’s exactly how Russell Mulcahy would’ve preferred it back in 1984. During the film’s initial theatrical release, he wanted to downplay the monster pig aspect and highlight the strangeness of the environment. And the environment in this film is certainly very strange. Indeed, it could well be considered a character in itself – as the Australian outback has never been portrayed in such an alien and lurid manner as it is in Razorback.

A trail-blazing pioneer of music videos, Mulcahy was an inspired choice to helm what is essentially a straight-forward genre B-movie monster flick and his rock video aesthetics elevate the material to a whole new level of surrealism.

The producers hired him on the strengths of two music videos in particular: ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ by Duran Duran and ‘Street Cafe’ by Icehouse. And it’s easy to see why – as these videos do indeed resemble mini-movies.

The film was unfairly criticised at the time as being nothing more than just an extended music video (much in the same way Walter Hill’s Streets Of Fire was initially received). However, as time has shown – the highly-stylized MTV look and editing techniques employed by Mulcahy have become de rigueur in today’s commercial cinema (most notably, I dare say, in the work of the late Tony Scott).

I was lucky enough to attend an Australian Cinematographers Society convention soon after the film’s release, where the film’s cinematographer: Dean Semler (who had also lensed Mad Max 2) gave a talk and screened his favourite reel from Razorback.

It was the night-time kangaroo hunt sequence, where Gregory Harrison is left abandoned by the roo shooters and chased by boars, ending up atop a windmill at a waterhole. During this sequence, Harrison stumbles through a dry creek bed landscape of gnarled gum trees, backlit by multipul off-screen light sources, diffused by naturally-occuring mist.

Semler quizzed Mulcahy on the verisimilitude of the light sources: “Russell, where exactly IS all this light coming from?”.

“Who cares!” Mulcahy replied – “It looks fucking great!”

For Semler, this was the defining moment of the shoot, which allowed him to ditch the rule book and just go with the beauty of the image – regardless of logic – the music video aesthetic. He said this was very liberating, allowing him the freedom to just let fly and be creative.

And this is really what exemplifies the intent of Razorback

It’s fun!

Mulcahy pulled out all the stops with Razorback, believing he’d never be asked to direct another feature again. So he threw as much style and frenetic energy into it as he could. No matter what one thinks of the movie, it could never be accused of being boring!

As with Jaws, the fact that the full-size mechanical pig (the size of a rhino) never functioned as well as was hoped – actually works in the film’s favour. We only catch glimpses of the beast, either in close-up or extreme long shots, which creates a sense of believability which would otherwise be lacking.

A more explicit cut was released on home video in Australia in 1985 which featured extra gore. But the make-up effects were so over the top and unconvincing at times – they did nothing to enhance what was already there and in fact only acted as an unnecessary distraction.

This is one of those instances where the theatrical cut is the definitive version.

Producer Hal McElroy originally wanted Jeff Bridges for the lead role of Carl Winters. The studio, however, felt Bridges wasn’t big enough at the time and insisted that Gregory Harrison be cast instead, as they felt he was on the verge of becoming a star. But as history has shown – this wasn’t the case. Not to say he is a poor actor. He’s actually quite good. In fact, I think perhaps in hindsight, Harrison was indeed the right choice for the movie, as his relative anonymity allows the viewer to project themselves into the character’s shoes more easily than if it were say Jeff Bridges – who of course became the star Harrison was expected to be.

Despite her youth, Arkie Whiteley (the cute girl from Mad Max 2) is wholly convincing as wild boar researcher Sarah Cameron. Her on-screen chemistry with veteran actor Bill Kerr, who plays boar-hunter Jake Cullen, works very well.

Chris Haywood and David Argue’s manic turns as crazed roo-shooting brothers Benny and Dicko are so over the top they become humorous and yet remain scary at the same time. If I were lost in the Australian outback and had to choose between a big pig or these guys – I’d take my chances with the pig.

Haywood and Argue steal every scene they’re in.

The only cast member who isn’t really up to scratch is Judy Morris, as the missing animal campaigner, Beth Winters. Her phoney American accent has to be one of the worst ever by an Australian actor.

Iva Davies’ percussive synth score (which is reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder’s score for Cat People) effectively evokes the primal brutality of the Australian landscape.

Razorback was nominated for six Australian Film Institute Awards in 1984, including: adapted screenplay, production design, sound, and music score – winning awards for cinematography and editing. It was also nominated for the Grand Prize at the 1985 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival.

And this little piggy went – SQUEEEEAL!!!

Although Razorback received generally positive reviews here in Australia, it didn’t fare so well in the US. Preview audiences stateside were universally appalled by its perceived vulgarity and it never received a wide release. It was only in recent times, when the likes of Quentin Tarantino sang its praises, that Razorback is finally being recognized as the B-movie classic it is.

Highly recommended.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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2 Comments
  1. Love Razorback, the cinematography inspired me to be a photographer

    • gregory moss permalink

      That’s great! Yeah – every frame is absolutely a work of art. Mulcahy and Semler were a perfect match on this I reckon. 🙂

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