Directed by Arch Nicholson
Cast: Rachel Ward, Peter Hehir
During my time spent as a poor Mexican child in Liberal Kansas, my family got our cable TV the old-fashioned way--we stole it. Well, technically, one person on our block paid for it, and the rest of us hooked our houses up to that person’s service. I can still remember the tangled knot of black cable which spider-webbed out from my neighbor’s porch to every other house on our block, bequeathing upon us all the gift of HBO and some new-fangled station called MTV. Every Friday and Saturday night I would camp out on the living room couch with a stack of comic books and some snacks and take in the awesome mind-bending power of stolen cable. Trash cinema classics such as Magic, Fun House and Basket Case attacked my young brain like a swarm of pissed-off killer bees and firmly imbedded themselves into the essence of my childhood. These flix played a large part in the development of my cinematic tastes and continue to shape how I look at film today. Plus, I got to see a helluva lot of boobs.
But one movie in particular lodged itself into my brain like a hazy nightmare. A movie that I could only recall in bits and pieces and whose title escaped me for the longest time until I rediscovered it just recently. That movie? The incredible Australian survivalist horror film Fortress starring the lovely Rachel Ward (she of “The Thorn Birds” and Sharky’s Machine fame). Now, if you remember, the ’80s were huge for Australia (The Road Warrior and Crocodile Dundee, anyone?) But before the Land Down Under unleashed the cinematic fury of Yahoo Serious and Mark “Jacko” Jackson upon us, the only contact I had with anything even remotely Australian was Fortress and Captain Kangaroo.
And, believe me, Fortress made me want to stay as far away from the outback as humanly possible. (Later, Yahoo Serious and Jacko would have this effect on me as well.)
The film opens in a small single-room school house in the middle of nowhere, where teacher Sally Jones (Ward) is going through the motions with her mixed-age class of students. It’s business as usual in the school, when all of a sudden a gang of gun-toting lunatics wearing crazy-looking Halloween masks show up and take everyone hostage. Led by the violently psychotic Father Christmas (played perfectly by Peter Hehir), these men plan on holding the group for ransom. After scaring the bejeezus out of the kids, the masked thugs take the group deep into the outback and stick them in a cave, sealing off the entrance with a boulder before heading off to demand their money.
Sally and her students prove to be pretty damn resourceful as they craft torches for themselves and manage to find an escape route through the back of the cave. After a great sequence where each child has to swim through an underwater passage, the group makes its way to a small farmhouse seeking refuge--only to find that the masked gunmen have already arrived and dispatched the elderly couple who lived there. Sally and the kids are once again whisked away to a cave and stuck inside it. With escape no longer an option, the group decides to get all Lord of The Flies on our asses and prepares to make a final stand when the gunmen return.
The film runs a little long, but the pacing and dark tone deliver some intense scenes. Surprisingly, all of the kids turn in solid performances as they each transform from doe-eyed innocent victims into survival-minded badasses hell-bent on revenge. The film strikes a tone similar to Battle Royale in this respect. And besides, with villains named Dabby Duck, Pussy Cat, Mac The Mouse and Father Christmas, what’s not to like? The disc has nothing to offer in terms of extras, and the packaging itself is extremely lame. (Seriously--that was the best DVD cover HBO could come up with?) Still, we get a sweet 16x9 print of a film that definitely deserves a viewing. So warm up the Jiffy Pop and keep your damn babies away from them dingos. The outback is begging for a visit. (Warner Home Video)