Friday, July 23, 2021

‘Razorback’: A Beautiful, Brutal Eco-Horror from Down Under [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

Global infatuation with all things Australia was still under way when Russell Mulcahy unleashed a 1984 movie described as “Jaws on land.” The music-video director’s first feature came out toward the end of Australia’s New Wave era, and like other “Ozploitation” films before it, Razorback paints the outback as a lawless, unforgiving territory. This time, however, danger comes in the form of a giant, insatiable boar hiding in the continent’s treacherous backyard.

Lindsay Chamberlain’s highly publicized, 1980 case is the inspiration behind the movie’s brutal opening. The mother was vacationing in Uluru when her nine-week-old daughter was abducted, and after being convicted of a crime she blamed on a dingo, Chamberlain was later exonerated. Meanwhile, Razorback reimagines the real-life story; kangaroo hunter Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) is babysitting when the film’s force of nature plows through his home and snatches his grandson, Scotty. Jake is brought up on charges for the boy’s disappearance, but he is ultimately acquitted due to a lack of evidence. Now the town pariah who believes a man-eating, rhino-sized razorback is roaming the area, Jake sets out to clear his name and avenge his grandchild.

Razorback attempts to do for boars what Jaws did for sharks. While Steven Spielberg cast a dark and permanent shadow on the shark’s reputation, Mulcahy’s movie requires more effort when convincing audiences these boars are nothing like Arnold Ziffel or Wilbur. The denizens of this overstated version of the outback are also skeptical toward the idea of a killer razorback. So to better grease the wheels and assure everyone wild hogs can be dangerous, the story immediately establishes no one is safe from the monster. By killing a baby at the film’s start instead of a hapless swimmer or teenage camper, Razorback makes its threat clear. The most innocent victim imaginable is executed with no hesitation. Even without visual confirmation of the infant’s death, Jake’s anguished, desperate howls are proof enough Scotty is long lost.

The bestial antagonists in movies like Razorback often have a symbolic role when they are not killing out of hunger or territorialism. Many analyses of Jaws see the great white as not only a menace to beachgoers but also capitalism. The boar has a similar reading; it stands in the way of Pet Pak, a pet food factory. Before reaching that point, though, the factory’s initial foil is an American reporter and animal rights campaigner named Beth Winters (Judy Morris). Leaving behind her husband Carl (Gregory Harrison) in New York, Beth heads to the outback to investigate the goings-on at Pet Pak.

Morris slips into the role of a do-gooder whose substantial love of animals outweighs her sense of self-preservation. She hopes to get the scoop on Pet Pak’s shady practices like illegally harvesting kangaroos to make dog food, but her rogue methods land her directly in harm’s way. Sadistic goons from the factory — one of whom helped discredit Jake at his trial — chase Beth down in the outback, try to rape her, and then leave her alone with the ravenous razorback. Idealists are not always rewarded in horror, and Beth is no exception to this unwritten rule. As it turns out, her horrifying death serves a higher purpose.

After Beth gets the Marion Crane treatment, husband Carl steps into the protagonist’s shoes. Razorback feels almost like a different movie from here on out, but this narrative curveball is in line with the source material; the novel by Peter Brennan has multiple subplots overlapping one another. Everett De Roche’s screenplay trims the book’s fat — the entire thread about diamond smuggling is cut out  — and adds more razorback action. Before the climactic conclusion comes, Carl first seeks answers from Jake as well as the Pet Pak punks responsible for Beth’s fatal run-in with the boar.

Although it might feel like a mid-film lull, Carl’s protracted journey to closure is not without its benefits. Mulcahy’s history in music videos is transparent all throughout the second act. He and cinematographer Dean Semler draw beauty from a place not always thought of as beautiful in Ozploitation; the outback’s loveliness comes out in spite of its arid climate and precarious geography. Gorgeous, abnormally colored landscapes and uncanny light sources make up some of the more striking visuals here. On top of that are the frightful, Dali-like mirages and hallucinations that do more to illustrate Carl’s state of weariness and grief than dialogue ever could.

Mulcahy’s film is both a testament to the size of the outback — only a region as big and sparsely populated as this could hide such a prodigious animal in plain sight — and an aggressive reminder of mankind’s place in the world. The more people encroach on nature, the more it retaliates. The razorback is one example of how an ecosystem corrects the imbalance; it chooses an agent to remove the poison. The true monster winds up being the American company using Australia’s natural resources and depriving the boar of kangaroos. The razorback would not have to seek out food elsewhere had it not been for Pet Pak. As much as Razorback roots itself in reality without succumbing to unearthly measures, there is a debatable air of magic to the events within. A workable theory has the beast acting on the outback’s hopes and fears, and maybe Beth’s spirit is somehow adding fuel to the fire. Nothing on screen explicitly supports a mystical angle, but in the same vein as Princess Mononoke, the environment finds other means of delaying the inevitable destruction brought on by humans.

Nature’s nightmare is reflected darkly through the razorback’s burning, merciless eyes, and audiences will have trouble looking away. There was a time when Mulcahy’s film was dismissed as too imitative or too oddball, but now it is seen in a whole new light. The story hosts a modest cache of nuance, and the visual output is tremendous. Most of all, buried beneath the ecological dread and creature mayhem is a visual poem about the outback, which has never looked so equally surreal and stark.


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