Severin Films // 1979 // 93 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // March 23rd, 2014
Surrender to an Unholy, Insatiable Evil
Back in the 1970s, Australian filmmaking was noted for daring filmmakers doing great work on shoestring budgets. Films such as Mad Max, Patrick, and Roadgames all came out of that period. Also from that period is Thirst, brought to us in high definition by Severin. While it's an intriguing twist on vampirism, the movie ultimately leaves the court a bit dry.
Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri, General Hospital), a successful editor, is kidnapped from her home and whisked away to a secluded compound. There she's informed that she is the descendant of Elizabeth Bathory -- sometimes referred to as "Countess Dracula" for her penchant of bathing in the blood of virgins. The people who have taken her believe much the same as did Bathory -- that drinking human blood grants power and youth. The compound is, in fact, their farm, where they raise compliant humans as cattle, harvest their blood, and ship the blood the "vampires" around the world.
The group is insistent that Kate join up, but there's dissension in the ranks as to how to accomplish the goal. Mrs. Barker (Shirley Cameron) favors an aggressive plan reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate, while Dr. Fraser (David Hemmings, Juggernaut) fears that approach will drive Kate insane. Barker's factions wins out, and Kate is pumped full of hallucinogens, setting up the middle section of the film, in which neither we nor Kate are really clear what's going on.
Regardless of the method, they mean for Kate to become one with them, and will not rest until she gives in to her thirst.
There are a lot of plot elements that are not clearly explained, not the least of which is exactly what this bunch of whackadoodles hopes to accomplish by recruiting Kate. Here's the thing: I'm not entirely convinced that clarifying those elements will significantly improve the film, which comes across as more of an impressionist piece than a formal story. In the commentary track, they say that when they started shooting, they didn't really have a decent ending and had a competition among cast and crew to figure it out. There's an object lesson in there somewhere. Thirst is an enjoyable movie, but one wonders if the cast and crew ultimately made the movie that they wanted.
There are some incredibly effective sequences, particularly in the middle act when Kate's hallucinating all over the place. Great atmosphere, great sense of mood. The problem whenever you have a string of hallucinations is that you have to know when to stop; one moment the audience is caught up with the character's disorientation, and the next, the audience becomes too detached for subsequent hallucinations to be effective. That's definitely an issue here, with the film going one trip (possibly two) too far.
The acting is for the most part, good. The three principles mentioned above all turn in exceptionally strong performances. Contouri in particular stands out, not just because she's the lead, but because her character is so utterly reactive. For someone who is purportedly a successful businesswoman, we never see her bring any of those skills to the table as she must be strong and try to carry on, or else her mind may well snap. For the most part, she handles herself well, but after a hallucination in which she thinks she's having a romantic interlude with her boyfriend, the cobwebs fade away and she discovers that she's been raped by one of the vampire aristocrats, she remains a little too detached for her own good. Shirley Cameron chews scenery with Malkovichian glee as the vamp leader who wants to break Kate at all costs, while David Hemmings offsets her with a restrained yet sympathetic turn (which makes various plot developments even more confusing). All is not rosy on the acting front, however; while veteran heavy Henry Silva (Sharky's Machine) brings his menacing presence, he also brings some exceptionally wooden line readings.
Thirst boasts a particularly strong score by Queen guitarist Brian May. It's fairly restrained, particularly for the genre, but it mixes styles, instrumentation, and genres in a way that helps support the film's atmosphere when the plot can't. The score is included as an isolated audio track, though Severin didn't see fit to give it a lossless track. They also missed a real opportunity by not re-mastering it for at least stereo; multi-track audio would really enhance the hallucinogenic scenes.
Ozploitation was, above all else, about ridiculously small budgets; so there's only going to be so much restoration that can be done. Colors are more or less crisp and consistent, though in some scenes flesh tones take on a yellowish hue. The image is relatively sharp, but boy, is there some grain going on here. Don't get too close to the screen when watching, lest you think you've fallen into a pointillism exhibit. Audio is good, but nothing to write home about. Extras are decent. In addition to the isolated music track mentioned earlier, there's a commentary track with director Rod Hardy and producer Antony I. Ginnane. They offer a lot of tidbits about how they worked with such a low budget, including the laughably low-tech way they managed the vampire's glowing red eyes. Really, for all the movie's strengths, the biggest is probably Hardy, who brings a strong sense of purpose to the production, bringing the best out of Contouri in the wilder scenes. This was Hardy's first feature; his subsequent career has been varied but consistent, including several episodes of the Battlestar Galactica reboot.
While the movie is enjoyable in the moment, the fact remains that the plot doesn't quite work, despite some very intriguing ideas. It would be really easy to read the movie as a dark allegory on class struggles, the upper class feeding on the lower class -- particularly since Mrs. Barker refers to the vampires as aristocracy. In that light, the movie fares somewhat better, though it has a side effect of oversimplifying everything.
Thirst is a somewhat maddening film. It has good performances, there are a lot of good scenes, and some good ideas. However, like water on a hotplate, the various drops just dance around without ever coalescing into a coherent whole. These vampires aren't quite the sort of bloodsuckers we generally expect to see, but you have to admire their dedication to producing high-quality product. Maybe it's a prescient, postmodern commentary on organic farming? Yes, I'm reaching.
I've had great luck viewing Thirst as a re-imagining of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I'm having a bad back day, so it could well be the pain medication talking. There were a few too many glitches that pulled me out of the experience. While it's an entertaining movie, once the blood and dust settle, I can't really say it's a good one.
A pain in the neck.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Isolated Score
* Trailer/TV Spots
* DVD Copy