After a recent viewing of Becoming Jane, the world’s most irritating and pointless Austen movie (by leagues), I was frantic to Epsom-salt the memory of it from my brain. I’m big on the acid/base therapeutic approach in times like these, so I grappled one of the best B-movies ever made off my shelf to help me get back to zero. I figured what I needed was Jane’s polar opposite in genre, tone and intended audience; it reflects particularly badly on a high-brow British costume drama when a wee-slight Australian monster movie easily trounces the former in style, competence and entertainment value.
The descriptor that usually comes up when I hear favorable things about Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (1984) is the nauseating undiscovered gem phrase (not so undiscovered in Australia, obviously, but I write as a shifty foreigner for a shifty-foreign crowd). Only it’s really true in this case, and it’s worth trying to track down a copy (they’re elusive). Of course, you have to be able to get your gear on for oddly premised thrillers if you want to sample the dialogue, cinematography and performances contained beautifully in the film. My love affair with this one goes back to the early 90s when a friend and I, in complete ignorance, chose it arbitrarily off the shelf of a dusty little video store. The tabula rasa viewing experience evolved into one of those moments of cinematic eureka. OK, so it’s about a giant wild boar on a rampage. If you can get past the eponymous creature, you’ll find a dozen dynamite things to cake your plate.
Here’s the back-cover blurb: a wiry old codger in the Australian Outback is accused of murdering his infant grandson, who was actually removed, dingo-style, by an obstreperous wild boar. Two years later, an American animal-rights activist arrives to film a documentary about the mishandling of local wildlife, and disappears on assignment. Her husband flies down to Australia to find out what happened to her, and discovers an Outback that would have Paul Hogan for breakfast — the ‘roid razorback that terrorizes the land has nothing on the suspiciously wonky-eyed and feeble-minded locals.
To those who would spurn this flick on premise alone, bear in mind that the cult credentials of the talent involved give it weight. Fans of Highlander might want to give director Mulcahy’s way better early-80s thrill-endeavor a glance. So might fans of Road Warrior, whose cinematographer, Dean Semler, makes a sere tooth out of the Australian landscape (it’s hard, in fact, to deny that Road Warrior is being referenced in Razorback, with the villains’ crazy aviator goggles and their rattling, slaughter-ready contraption-on-wheels). And while Gregory Harrison as the main protagonist does an adequate job, it’s David Argue’s movie. His turn as Dicko the champion nutjob is worth the price of rental alone. Points also for Bill Kerr as Jake Cullen, the Ahabic curmudgeon out to avenge his grandson’s slaughter, and Arkie Whiteley as a sympathetic researcher who rocks a kickin’ Olivia Newton-John wardrobe.
The film starts out as another “abused nature takes revenge” tale and transforms itself, thanks to the aforementioned talent, into something that reaches beyond type. Far more ominous than any razorback is the local employer, Pet-Pak, a pet-food plant that stinks out a strong argument against the slaughter industry. The factory is babysat by the halfwit Baker brothers, Benny and Dicko, whose mental workings clink around in their skulls in rhythm with the gear that clatters about in their suspension-challenged truck. Their cost-cutting use of kangaroos and wallabies in the local dogfood attracts the attention of the World Animal League, for whom Beth Winters (Judy Morris) is working. The set-up of the activist versus the poachers and meat-packers is the film’s thematic flashcard, and it trots out a dishful of anti-meat-eating metaphor. That the story is set in the fictional town of Gamullah (aborigine for “intestine”) leaves no room for doubt. Razorback’s lachrymose slaughterhouse does for vegetarianism what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did for safe food laws decades earlier. It’s clear we’re meant to sympathize with the fuzzies. The line that separates beast from peeps is deliberately blurred: human cruelty is more vicious than the boar’s; Pet-Pak’s cost-cutting is analogue to the Mad Cow scare; Dicko’s eyes reflect headlights as wanly as a cat’s; Beth’s husband turns to a dead roo for life-saving warmth on a cold night. The razorback’s killing spree is measured against the perennial killing spree in the meat industry and comes up roses in comparison.
Subtext aside, Razorback is a beautiful film to watch (it won an award for cinematography). The scab-dry landscape holds a lot of uncanny light and silhouettes come sundown, and the dust in the interiors reflects the geography of the location, as does the peculiar quality of the sunshine. The Pet-Pak plant is a grisly, industrial conception of set design, but it’s still somehow realistic. The Baker brothers’ tin-covered cavern, in which Our Hero voluntarily spends the night, is more macabre and threatening than a William Castle castle. Shadows are one thing, but brainsick hosts are quite another. The overall atmosphere is brought to life further by Iva Davies’ score, which has the same hollow, eerie quality as a score in a Carpenter film — understated in parts, unexpected in others, yet a seamless part of the mix.
The prime asset of the film, after Semler’s cinematography, is its characterization. Capable actors are given the best of all springboards: interesting dialogue. Dicko’s lines are laced with a combination of farce and hysteria, along with a dash of village idiot thrown in for good measure. While quirky celluloid sociopaths are a dime a dozen, this one’s a breed apart cinematically (if not genealogically — ahem). His sick jesting aside, there isn’t anything sympathetic about him. It might be his rapist tendencies, or his kangaroo-poaching, or the fact that he’s dimwitted enough to rub out one of his pet-food customers for a lark. He’s your all-around ugly-in-every-way cock-grabbing man-child lunatic, but he’s also riveting to watch, somehow three-dimensional, and easily the best reason to pop Razorback into your player.
And what about the boar? Depending on who you read, it’s either a travesty of bad special effects or a wickedly effective movie creature. Repeat viewings, as far as I’m concerned, show me a beast that carries it off. It also manages to carry off half a house, running away with a lit television and giving the term disappearing perspective a whole new angle. It participates in one of the more breath-stopping massacres on film (though the movie, in general, is relatively light on gore and heavy on suggestion; cue buzzing Outback houseflies). But it’s the cocked set design and the characters’ reactions to the beasts that ultimately project the razorback’s fearsomeness. What few glimpse we catch of the giant boar leave just enough to the imagination to paint a daunting adversary. Those few glimpses bring the creature to life more in mind than onscreen and give substance to its symbolic role.
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on August 13, 2007.)