Stygian (Shannon Young and James Wan, 1998)

Just inside the second century of commercial filmmaking, the feature length format still remains the sexiest, on both sides of the camera and, on a more primal level, on both sides of the projector. The siren-like allure to make features besets all sorts. Of course, the current convergence of so many digital technologies is playing a great assist. Perhaps the revolution that we have to have is still on its way? Meanwhile, the worldwide urge to perform do-it-yourself feature filmmaking marches on. In fact, like some kind of virulent, sexually transmitted disease, it’s spreading rapidly. And it is contagious.

Australia has not been immune to infection. Do-it-yourself filmmakers exist in numbers. It’s just taken the advent of the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) to present a major sampling in a showcase situation.

MUFF 2000 took place during the last week and a half of July, at a triumvirate of Melbourne’s surviving independent inner-city screens. In another amazing case of convergence, the Lumiere, the Nova and the Kino Cinemas all lined up to play host to various screenings including the selected works of Dario Argento and Jess Franco, a massive and killer collection of packaged shorts, and an Australian trash cinema retrospective. Getting these cinemas to devote their screens to such content on a one-off basis is usually impossible but getting them to do it in concert was nothing short of a Vatican validated miracle. Perhaps they were feeling a little miffed at being excluded from another series of screenings happening elsewhere in the city at the same time? Whatever, the stars were well and truly aligned to allow this particular meeting of independents. Can we only hope that an ongoing association has been formed somewhere here? Unfortunately, the 49th Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) happened to be unspooling simultaneously. Extremely bad timing by MUFF was what sadly ensured feeble audience numbers.

Of the twelve films in the New Australian and International Cinema category (a British film called Lighthouse didn’t turn up), basically a premiere section, there were eight Australian entries. They found themselves in competition under the hyper-critical gaze of a panel chaired by yours truly.

Naturally by coincidence but ever so fittingly, July became Mark Savage month in Melbourne. His second film The Masturbating Gunman (1997) screened at MUFF while his third and latest film Sensitive New Age Killer (2000) appeared at MIFF. A joke gore sequence from The Masturbating Gunman edited into Sensitive New Age Killer had MIFF audiences rolling in the aisles for the same reasons they were over at MUFF.

Savage made the seminal flick Marauders in the mid-’80s, which, alongside Houseboat Horror from 1987, represents the vanguard of shot-on-video feature production in Australia. Marauders was shot in increments over weekends with borrowed equipment in typical guerrilla fashion. Despite a positive review in Variety by David Stratton, the acquisition of an international distributor, and the odd local theatrical screening, Marauders remains unreleased in Australia. By dint of persistence Savage has moved on to more sophisticated productions while his underground connections remain overt especially in the areas of thematics and style. Have I mentioned the idiosyncratic title of The Masturbating Gunman enough already? The title is actually completely redolent of the Japanese influence on this film. Already released in the States, this crazy tale of sexual aberration and industrial killing could only see light of day under the hardly enlightening sobriquet Masked Avenger Versus Ultra-Villain In The Lair Of The Naked Bikini. We’re still waiting for its Australian distributor to make a move. Mark Savage walked away from MUFF with the best director award.

Another piece of natural selection and in fact singular reason for MUFF, if you insist on having one, was Richard Wolstencroft’s Pearls Before Swine (1999), an S & M, gunplay drama with serious political concerns and plenty of personal violence. This is Wolstencroft’s third feature after co-directing Bloodlust (another DIY history maker) with Jon Hewitt in 1992, and Intruder, which will probably remain buried forever. Wolstencroft is the director of MUFF and as a teenager worked on Marauders. Boasting a cool score (featuring a jaunty theme from star Boyd Rice), amateur thespians delivering large chunks of polemic, and even an appearance by Aussie rock veteran Ross Wilson, Pearls is a unique if sometimes tedious addition to the Australian DIY feature canon. Although shot on film in Melbourne several years ago, it spent the intervening time languishing at the lab before completion on video – the exhibition and finished format for all the Australian features screened at MUFF.

The oldest completed film was Cthulhu (1997). An effective chiller that’s a neat distillation of three tales from H. P. Lovecraft, all of which exist in the public domain (now why don’t more DIY filmmakers go there for source material?) and was shot over five years ago in Canberra. Dawn Of The D.M.Fs (1999) began filming nearly ten years ago in Melbourne but only appeared last year after five years of post-production Hell. A schlock epic in every sense, this Dawn has captured a vision of Melbourne that’s hardly there ten years later. It’s a crazy farrago of trash film fetish fever that’s sure to challenge the humour impaired. The Troma aroma hangs heavily over this flick that’s already made an appearance in Sydney since MUFF.

Stygian (1998) is the combined effort of two former film students Shannon Young and James Wan. Like many of the above, Stygian allows its ambition to exceed its ability as it puts its highly capable male lead through a feature length chase sequence. This action fantasy does require audience stamina but packs itself with invention especially in the area of make-up special effects. Conversely time runs out almost too soon for Computer Boy (2000) a razor sharp no-budget parody of The Matrix that works in a way that I suspect wouldn’t really require a viewer to have seen the latter despite the filmmaker’s disclaimer. Made in Sydney, Computer Boy clocks in at just under 50 minutes.

Two major highlights for many at MUFF were Blood Rush (2000) from Queensland and Narcosys (2000) from Melbourne, the latter which was awarded best film. Both cry out for a video release that just doesn’t seem to be presently capable of any local distributor. In fact, international release on video or, better yet, DVD is the best area to devote time and effort. Internet distribution that pays is still on the way although the latter three titles could do worse than send their works to the Sci Fi Channel which does purchase films for their website. Locally, video distribution is something that MUFF is certainly considering taking into its own hands.

As to other elements of the future it’s clear that MUFF should proceed simply in order to document what’s really out there on our own continent. MUFF 2000, which maybe the most hastily convened film festival ever, only touched the surface of a territory of titles that includes Ranko, Done To Death, Leonora, Back From The Dead, To The Point Of Death, Reflections and who knows precisely how many more?

About The Author

Michael Helms has been writing about horror films made in Australia for Fangoria and other international genre press for the best part of the last 25 years. He edited and published Fatal Visions for ten years and also regularly contributes to French language publication L’Écran Fantastique. His voice can be heard on commentaries for films such as Bloodlust, The Beautiful and the Damned and the forthcoming Story of Joe Blow. He recently appeared onscreen for the documentary by Jarret Gahan Gone Lesbo Gone.