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The Syme home video publicity claims this film is in the tradition of a Hitchcock suspense thriller but it is played more as a spaghetti western with the typical opening hauntingly choral musical score, and sadly Terry Bourke's direction is not in the same league. The tale revolves around the mysterious vanishing of guests from a hostel deep in the Australian rain forests of Gippsland, Victoria in 1896, run by the Straulles, an Austrian couple. Unfortunately the owners of this wayside inn are simply not as sinisterly menacing as Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Hitchcock's classic, `Psycho'. Originally an outstanding stage actress, Dame Judith Anderson (Caroline Straulle, who is obviously fussy about the social standing of her guests/victims, bemusingly objecting to a whore) gave a more convincing performance as the chillingly malicious housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock's 1940 version of Daphne Du Maurier's `Rebecca', for which she was deservedly nominated an Oscar. Her co-star (Joseph Furst) prior to this, seems to have made a career out of playing caricature mad Austrians, as in the Bond movie `Diamonds Are Forever'. There is an attempt at an ominous moodiness in the guesthouse but it is hardly developed to any great level and the various murders are weakly staged, accompanied by Bob Young's strangely clonkingly unsuspenseful music, which at other times can be jauntily, and even eerily, melodic. One wonders why the victims didn't just simply get out of bed rather than screaming hysterically whilst waiting to be crushed by the slowly descending canopy? At one point the more successful mixture of western and gothic horror in `The Beguiled', with Clint Eastwood, is hinted at when its sexual tensions are mirrored with the depiction of an illicit and exploitative relationship between a stepmother (Diana Dangerfield) and her younger charge (Carla Hoogeveen; `Class of 74').
Why the Straulles sought revenge on their guests for the abduction of their two children a dozen years earlier by a ghoulish escaped convict, or why they believed the two pictures they kept locked in a room were really their `liebchen' is not satisfactorily explained. Nor is any reason given as to why disposing of the bodies in the well didn't contaminate the water supply and mercifully kill off the psychotic couple. The coachman, Biscayne (Robert Quilter), who brings unwitting visitors to the hostel, is wanted for murder and also happens to be a horse thief which provides the opportunity to follow a western style manhunt when he is pursued by an American bounty hunter and maverick, Cal Kincaid (Alex Cord). Real horror and terror are missing, leaving only puzzlement as to what else this could have been about, as it certainly failed me on the obvious levels. The actors have some poor lines to work with (after a botched murder attempt Lazar Straulle lamely utters `Die, die, why don't you die?') and they are challenged to do an adequate job, as we are to enjoy it, never finding our sympathies drawn for any of the characters. It maybe that the audiences of 1974 appreciated this style of film making more and its female nudity in particular, although the naked fruit feast scenes are laughable rather than erotic, but unfortunately my appetite for this morsel has been jaded by too many slicker Hollywood movies.
Although the horror may not be pronounced, Brian Probyn's cinematography captures a certain malevolence as well as promoting the diversity of the region's arresting wilderness and lush rain forests, and his work can be further seen in `Far East', John Duigan's colourful remake of `Casablanca'. John Meillon as a bumbling petty thief also gives a brief taste of his future performance as Paul Hogan's amiable sidekick, Walter Reilly in the first two `Crocodile Dundee' movies.
Whilst it is hard to recommend this feature for entertainment value alone it does have appeal for those with a curious interest in the history of Australian film making and its actors. I used the trackdown service from All About Movies for a secondhand copy of this video, although ScreenSound Australia also holds preservation material.
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