When it came to creating culturally significant cinema, both at home and abroad, Australia entered the celluloid fray early on. Though they were part of the initial motion picture boom at the turn of the century, cheaply bought American product came to dominate the country by World War II. Estimates are that, during the decades from 1920 to 1960, almost 94% of all films shown were purchased from outside foreign markets. Sometime during the 1970s, government funding was increased and the country saw another wave of compelling commercial creativity. By the 1980s the explosion had gone worldwide, with films such as The Road Warrior and 'Crocodile' Dundee making significant dents in the US market. It was around this time that video technician Mark Savage got a spectacular idea. He would borrow the equipment from his job and on weekends he too would make proper movies with his pals. A longtime creator of his own homegrown extravaganzas, Savage soon delivered Marauders, one of Australia's first direct to video genre efforts. He followed it up with the far more adventurous SNAK – Sensitive New-Age Killer and the highly experimental silent "blood symphony" Defenceless. Relatively unknown outside his native land until now, Subversive Cinema is releasing a boxset compilation of his work. Containing the three movies above, plus a wealth of bonus material, it is an amazing trip through this talented artist's considered canon.
JD Kruger and Emilio East are a pair of clearly unhinged criminals that go on a massive crime spree - beginning with the murders of people in their own family. Along the way, JD is involved in a hit and run accident at the hands of ghastly lothario David Frazier. Eager to get his latest female conquest up to an isolated cabin, Dave doesn't care about JD's fate. Naturally, the duo follows him, and wind up confronting a bunch of local rubes along the way. After raping and abusing whomever they want, JD and Emilio prepare to deal with David (who's been trying to rape his proposed paramour). None of them are aware that the local townsfolk have gathered up a posse – and are out for a little vigilante justice.
SNAK – Sensitive New-Age Killer (2000)
All his life, Paul Morris has been enamored of someone called "The Snake", a hitman with a supposed heart of gold. Wanting to attempt a similar assassin's path, Paul hooks up with lifelong pal George, and starts completing contracts for a local crime family. Quite conveniently, he is married to the boss's niece. When a kinky female cop captures him, she demands sex in return for his continued freedom. Equally aggravating to Paul is the fact that his recent jobs have been horrendous failures. When he learns that a notorious international drug dealer with a $1 million bounty on his head is coming to town, he prepares for one final "score". But the sudden arrival of The Snake throws a wrench into this hired killer's final job.
When she refused to sign a development contract, an environmentally conscious woman becomes the target of deadly threats from her proposed business partners. Even after several members of her friends and family are affected, she still will not give in. This leads to some decidedly fatal consequences. Nine months later, a young girl, hoping to escape her stepfather's pedophilic abuse, stumbles across a disoriented lady washed up on the seashore. It's the long dead ecologist, reborn as a vehicle of vengeance. After regaining her "living" orientation, she seeks out the men who destroyed her life, determined to pay them back for all the crimes they've committed.
Representing 20 years in Mark Savage's strange cinematic journey, this box set suggests a major untapped talent just aching for international recognition. As someone who sees literally hundreds of homemade movies over the course of his trips across the film and DVD critical landscape, Savage certainly stands out. He doesn't stumble where other first timers flop. He understands, almost inherently, the need inside each scene, using all the means at his disposal to keep his dialogue definitive, his action fierce and focused. He's not afraid to stretch, both artistically and technically, and manages substance of near epic proportions on budgets smaller than most Hollywood blockbusters craft services' bill. Looking at the three films offered in this collection individually, we see Savage's motion picture maturation process. From genre devotee to avant-garde innovator, this is a filmmaker unafraid of the medium's mandates. Instead, he embraces them, and then finds significant ways to tweak and torment them. The result is usually terrific, as the trio of titles presented can attest. Let's begin with:
Marauders (Score: ****)
Watching Marauders is a lot like sneaking a peek inside Savage's then youthful internal exuberance. It's like a crash course in genre cinema, a combination of every Last House on the Left rip-off intermingled with a little I Spit on Your Grave style revenge. It's sick, twisted, perverse, implausible and highly erratic. Both tawdry and talky, it's the kind of film that either kicks in with you immediately, or that's instantly repellent to all your sensibilities. Your reaction to the narrative's opening sequences will say a great deal about how much you will enjoy this exhilarating exploitation enterprise. Arguably, this is a movie made by individuals in love with the dynamics of cinema. Savage is incredibly creative with the camera, using a marvelously complex mise-en-scene to keep his story energetic and invigorating. Even in the sequences where individuals are arguing, engaged in nothing more than a good old fashioned stand-off, Savage keeps the sequences electric. It may all just be movie magic and visual manipulation, but it definitely works. What could be a stagy, hyper dramatic chore becomes a wicked little wonder. Overloaded with repugnant criminal intent and a fiery filmic imagination, Marauders makes a substantial case for Savage as a supremely gifted filmmaker.
SNAK – Sensitive New-Age Killer (Score: ****)
Arriving an astonishing 14 years after Marauders, SNAK signals Savage's attempt at semi-serious filmmaking. Using the archetypal hitman to tell a twisted black comedy tale about honor – and discredit – among criminals, this slightly askew movie is a real treat. Considering itself a combination of John Woo and David Lynch, SNAK actually feels like the Coen Brothers after one too many crime novels. While the dialogue and look are all thoroughly modern, there is a definite throwback approach to the kind of quirky, idiosyncratic offerings we are used to from those celebrated sibling filmmakers. Savage uses celluloid here (Marauders was a video feature) and this truly amplifies his artistic ambitions. Going overboard with the gunplay in noticeably unrealistic ways (though they tend to carry six shooters, no one EVER runs out of bullets here) and tacking on a bit too much evil eccentricity for one film (does George have to be a such a psychosexual sludge pot?) this is still a thoroughly engaging experience. Savage shows clear indications of a growing maturity. His camera is less frenetic, his approach to the non-violent moments often tender and subtle. He still enjoys the usual angle and the clear editing beats, but he doesn't indulge in them the way he did during his first feature. Though the ending is a tad anticlimactic, this is still a frightfully original film, far better than similarly styled American efforts.
Defenceless (Score: ****)
As the lone experimental film in the set, Defenceless sounds like an incredibly tough cinematic sell. Using a combination of classical orchestral works and ambient new age music in place of dialogue, and relying almost exclusively on the lost art of visual storytelling, Savage manages something quite extraordinary. With the help of his considered cast, a wonderful handle on mood and atmosphere, and a fairly straightforward narrative thread, this female revenge fantasy has elements both spiritual and sinister. Savage is obviously trying to infer a kind of cosmic comeuppance for anyone who dares damage a woman, linking together the travails of both our lead and her abused child savior. Death is the determining factor, and Savage does not shy away from its horrifying reality. There are some very nasty scenes here, sequences of implied mutilation and rape that are repugnant and repulsive. But thanks to the manner in which our undead heroine dishes out the vengeance (castration is too kind a word for what happens to her tormentors) and our own inner need to feel vindicated, Defenceless succeeds over its sometimes overpowering aesthetic aims. There may just be a few too many languid shots of a sublime seaside, horizon dappled with golden sunlight as waves slowly crash along the shore. Still, with the gorgeous cinematography juxtaposed against the gory, gruesome acts,Defenceless defies description.
Of the three films presented, only Marauders is offered in a 1.33:1 full screen image. SNAK and Defenceless are both preserved in near pristine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. All three look amazing, from the shockingly sharp clarity of Marauders VHS variables to the painting like parameters of Defenceless's silent film conceits. There is a minimal amount of grain to be found during SNAK, but this is clearly the result of blowing up the original Super 16mm negative to 35mm. Even with some meticulous digital post-production, there is just the slightest hint of those pesky picture particles.
About the only area where this DVD falters is in the bland, basic sound mixes created for each film. While Defenceless does the best job of combining sonic clarity with mood and tone, both SNAK and Marauders present decent, if derivative aural elements. While dialogue is never affected, and the use of music professional and practical, a far more open soundscape would have been preferable.
Thanks to a personal email from director Savage, and the arrival of the Limited Edition fourth disc in this reviewer's hands, it is clear that the original discussion of Savage Sinema from Down Under was missing an important component in its ability to be appreciated. This last DVD features Savage's masterful terror tone poem Stained, as well as a look back at his amateur days as a homemade moviemaker. Telling the sickening story of a group of perverted pedophiles trading in sexually explicit photos of children (all suggested, nothing ever shown) this haunting half hour is NOT to be missed. As he does with all his films, Savage lets his inherent understanding of cinema's skill at visual storytelling to fill in the gaps that his narrative purposely leaves open. We never get a true handle on what is happening (computer screens with disturbing content are glimpsed, little girls covered in filth are seen shivering in dingy, dungeon like sheds) but it doesn't matter. Savage sells us on the unholy elements of this tale (which, we learn at the beginning is based on truth!) via his incredible skill as a pure filmmaker. Like the rest of his considered canon, Stained is a sensational look at one of independent film's unsung heroes. It confirms Savage's future as an important cinematic artist.
Stained comes complete with its own selection of extras – 13 short films created by the director during his youth. Most are takes on standard genre ideas – monsters, murderers, ghouls and ghosts – and all show the promise present in Savage's developing style. Granted a few are kind of silly in their juvenile desire to scare, but overall, this is an insightful addition to this comprehensive look at this filmmaker's career. As for the three featured films themselves, each disc contains a stellar amount of added content. All have Making-Of documentaries (painstaking and very detail oriented) terrific cast and crew commentaries (Savage and his associates deliver incredibly exhaustive accounts of each production) and the typical combination of bios, trailers, galleries, deleted scenes and production diary booklets (all overflowing with more insights and ideas). The result is something close to definitive. As a matter of fact, it's hard to imagine how Subversive Cinema could make this presentation any better. They include almost everything that a DVD fan could require while supplementing this collection of unknown films with the material necessary to make them more approachable to Savage novices.
With the material included on the fourth disc of this astounding DVD compendium, Savage Sinema from Down Under easily earns the DVD Talk Collector's Series score. It presents a fairly authoritative look at Mark Savage and his amazing, untapped cinematic skills. Call him an excellent exploitationer, a gifted outsider auteur, or a grossly under-appreciated product of his native land, but there is no denying the talent demonstrated over the course of his tenure. If Hollywood were smart, they'd sign up this celluloid savant as soon as possible. With his visual gifts and their access to funds, something truly amazing could be created. As a matter of fact, it's unknown filmmakers like Savage that signal the possible saving grace of an artistically bankrupt and originality depleted industry. Here's hoping he's given the chance to explore his imagination and creativity on a much larger, more mainstream canvas. He's earned the right to such specialized treatment. He's just that good.