Midnight Screaming: Thirst (1979)

960Exsanguinating Hammer Horror at their own game, Thirst’s stupendous opening teases arguably the greatest classical Gothic pastiche of the ‘70s. Set in a faded castle, the film immediately injects fresh blood (OK, I’ll stop) into the corpse of the once-young hooligans in Britain. Hammer, of course, was not immortal, unlike its money-maker Dracula (and seemingly their star Christopher Lee, who acted until the ripe old age of 95). By the out-of-control coaster that was the 1970s, the company had ironically aged into the very old fogey, Universal Horror, that Hammer had once upstaged. By the mid-70s, the heads of the company were desperately clawing at the ground around them to keep up pace with young upstarts like the American slashers, the Italian giallos, and a slew of murderous little Aussie numbers from down under. Horror’s claws (see, I didn’t say fangs) had sharpened in the intervening years, and it would require new blood (drum, drum, cymbal) like Thirst to re-ignite the fire.

But, although Thirst’s Gothic temper can flare, the filmmakers have other ideas about how to treat the material. The classical countenance of the opening is more a tease of Gothic horror than the genuine fact of one. (So much so that, as sharp as the film is, one feels pangs of nostalgia by the time the castle returns for an encore deep into the recesses of the plot, especially because director Rod Hardy’s keenest framing and camerawork is most densely packed at the beginning of the film). After the prologue, though, he almost immediately re-christens the film frame with white-washed, antiseptic, hyper-modernist spaces at the expense of the brick-and-mortar baroque manse. That pallid whiteness, incidentally, is just begging for a dash of red. Yet, like that same-year metal-fest Mad Max, perhaps the most venerable Australian cinematic export for those who prefer to keep their noises in the exploitation dirt, Thirst is not a haywire exploitation film ready for blood. It is a rumination on societal malaise assembled out of death-caked limbs dressed in exploitation drag.

Which is to say, by the late ‘70s, horror had also developed new ideas, new mechanisms for revitalizing age-old tropes, and Thirst is not looking backward over its shoulder attempting to outpace old styles. Rendering distant whispers of the occult and decking the halls with ‘70s esoterica, Thirst’s new-fangled update of the vampire lore recasts the species in a clandestine farm of sort. There, in the hidden outback of Australia, they draw blood from zombie-like human prey while fawning over their new matron, the paranoid Kate (Chantal Contouri), whom they’ve stolen from the outside world for their own. Apparently, she’s the last of the faded royal line, or some such plot contrivance. But her willingness to accept the vampiric ways, now modernized, doctored-up, and dressed in their Sunday finest but still the same old murderous habits in sheep’s clothing, remains dubious at best.

Obviously a metaphor for civilization taming past rituals via bandaging them in a more medicinal and progressive rhetoric without actually fixing them, the film bears obvious resonances in neo-colonialism and Western society’s power-hungry gaze and justification of said gaze with the lexicon of history. If you like, brandishing their own ability to “modernize” through technology even becomes another rhetorical whip for the social elite, much as the vampires feel more justified in their actions here via their blood-sucking habits leaving victims “alive” but in a slave-like state. The white-walled ‘70s testing agencies hide lairs of sinister albeit murky intent also bearing resonance in the scientific probing of female sexual frustration, courtesy of our protagonist.

Which is to say: Thirst has quite a bit on its plate, more than it can ingest. Agitating conspiracy paranoia, puncturing classism, and thumbing through the book on the sins of the father (escaping your family lineage and all that) are all inferred if not necessarily weaponized as provocative themes to their fullest extent. Instead, Thirst somewhat unsatisfyingly dusts itself with sprinkles of each theme almost as if trying to hit all the bases. Or, if you prefer, it throws everything at the wall to see what works, erecting a busy film where the surfeit of thematic density is thankfully qualified with a wounded, weathered climate and a hazy quasi-psychedelic bent that effectively marshals a complexion of unease without really going full-throttle and flooding the film’s tank in over-bearing atmosphere. (Now I have my puns mixed up with Mad Max, but Australian genre cinema from the ‘70s can have that effect on people).

Perhaps it goes without saying that we’re not in the same ballpark as Picnic at Hanging Rock or Walkabout  as far as horror or social critique is concerned, with Thirst never registering either the latter’s blunt sizzle or the former’s ethereal, psychosomatic sense of the past as a specter on the  back of the present. Thirst may have an idea or two about how to allegorize horror, but a better film, like those two earlier-‘70s classics, could overshadow allegory with the sublime unnaturalness of  freakish, lyrical textures and  dreamy evocations of alienation and youthful unrest. Do not expect Thirst to be included in that mighty tome of recovered-masterpieces like Australia’s savage fiend of a 1971 classic Wake in Fright.  Hardy’s film is a little too trapped in its own head-space and too statically ossified as a thought piece to actually feel out the irregular rhythms of out-of-the-way life in the outback like any of those other films. Thirst is too interested in working on paper to etch out its best self as a living and breathing film,  too blinded by its thoughts and themes and social weight to boast the outlaw spirit of lively, temporally-active cinema that revises and reconsiders itself by the moment.

Lest I get ahead of myself: Thirst is a good film, but its sense of pride in its own social relevance only neuters its effect, creating a work that is more insistent about its importance than the aforementioned Australian classics, but a work that is definitely not as deadly. If the nation down under is infamous for its bizarre and venomous animal beings, Thirst is so fascinated with connecting the dots of its own thesis to ever rank among the upper echelon of Australia’s murderer’s row of bedeviling creatures, both filmic ones or otherwise.

Score: 7/10

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