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Perhaps a sharpened wooden stake is nearing the heart of the present "Twilight" trend of fashionable, teen fantasy vampires, and the sooner the better. It's difficult to say whether Zombies or fashion-plate vampires will be the first to bite the dust. Vampires have almost always been popular in one form or another, what with Francis Coppola's Dracula reboot and the Tom Cruise - Anne Rice Interview With the Vampire steaming up screens for a few weeks apiece in the '90s.
Exploitation formulators of the 1970s gave us black bloodsuckers, sexy vampires and 'conceptual' vampires, but one idea that didn't go very far was a 'medical horror' branch of genre thinking, that presupposed that vampires were real physical creatures functioning apart from their supernatural public relations image. I remember an excellent script by Steven Nielson in which the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in the de-funding of a secret vampire-study complex in the Ukraine, where the untended corpse-ghouls were slowly thawing out. Too bad Charlie Band had no imagination.
Australian producer Antony I. Ginnane made a play for breakout status with his 1979 feature Thirst, based on the idea that a hereditary species of slightly superhuman vampires have banded together in a worldwide conspiracy to consolidate their power. John Pinkney's script places this coven-like organization (with almost a hundred thousand members) in a realistic context, as group of social elites contemptuous of the problems of the feeble mortals among whom they must live.
Professional decorator Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri) is kidnapped by some very wealthy people insisting that they wish to aid her 'discovery' of her true heritage as a descendant of the original Countess Bathory. Held as a prisoner on a large estate somewhere in the Melbourne area, Kate comes to realize that she's being kept on a "farm" where somnambulistic prisoners in white jumpsuits are periodically 'milked' of blood, like cows in a dairy. The enterprise has a large blood treatment factory room; it's presumed that the blood nourishes the vampires so that they won't attract the attention by victimizing ordinary citizens. The sadistic Mrs. Barker (Shirley Cameron) insists that a shock initiation is the way to break down Kate's resistance, while the kinder Dr. Fraser (David Hemmings) advocates allowing time for Kate to accept her destiny as a privileged super-person. Snob Mr. Hodge (Max Phipps) is eager to marry Kate, to mix their noble bloodlines. He settles for raping her while she's hypnotized to think that she's with her lover back in the city. Kate's captors keep trying to 're-awaken' her thirst for blood, in ever-horrifying ways. The scariest thing for Kate is that she indeed has always had bizarre, morbid dreams about death and hemoglobin. When the vampires induce more hallucinations, Kate experiences Dali-like weird waking nightmares.
Quite well thought out, the setup in Thirst pulls a new twist on the old idea that vampires symbolize the titled class literally feeding off helpless peasants. There's nothing ridiculous about the secret farms apparently up and running in several locations around the globe, as money and property now allow any number of anti-government separatists, religious zealots and (hopefully not too many) perversion cults to operate without detection. When the group has a coven-like meeting, limousines roll down the country lane packed with revelers eager to watch a chosen victim be sacrificed in a ritual to initiate a new member. These vampires do have varying psychic powers, or at least their pupils light up bright red when their bloodlust is aroused. In an interesting twist, they don't grow fangs but have fitted themselves with orthodontic dental retainers supporting razor-sharp chrome fangs.
Kate's nightmarish ordeal includes the hypnotic rape, a hopeless escape attempt and being served crimson blood at every opportunity. When she steps into a shower for some relief, we know quite well what's coming. Chantal Contouri is appealing and sympathetic as Kate, but the film's resolutely nihilistic attitude begins to erode our hopes for her rescue. There also seems no hope for any of the 'blood donor' captives, who are well fed but treated like inmates in an antiseptic concentration camp. For the most part they're dispirited and passive, like Eloi bred for good eating in the George Pal adaptation of The Time Machine.
All the acting is fine, although Yank marquee bait Henry Silva merely stands around smiling in a lot of scenes, as if nobody bothered to give him direction. The much more empathetic David Hemmings seems to be Kate's only hope, and we feel fortified when he comes to her aid at the end. But most of his effort is directed toward winning a power struggle among his fellow hemophiles. Thirst comes off as a moderately chilling tale with two or three genuinely shocking moments. As with many Australian films, the limits of taste are slightly different than ours, making some of the film's content seem much more brash than trashier American films of 1979. Thirst is a competent horror entry perhaps lacking one more element to spark it to a higher level of achievement.
Severin Films' Blu-ray + DVD of Thirst is an excellent transfer of a picture that likely didn't look so hot on earlier video formats. As was the trend in 1979 much of the film is shot with filters to soften the image, and requires the added resolution of HD to prevent the image from looking like video mush. Thus we have an attractive show with excellent color.
The main extra is a commentary with the producer and director. Antony I. Ginnane explains that 1978-'79 were the years of the big Aussie explosion, when local product was suddenly being picked up overseas and Judy Davis, Mel Gibson and Sam Neill became international stars. Patrick was one of these export hits; its leading player Robert Thompson has a supporting role in Thirst. Composer Brian May, well known for his Mad Max pictures, did the music, which can be heard on an Isolated Score Track.
Director Rod Hardy praises his cast and explains that a Melbourne artists' colony provided the interesting setting for the film's industrial "blood farm". He also explains that he first thought the film would make a terrific genre spoof, until he found out that it was to be played straight and sober. Thirst was Hardy's first film after several years of television work, and he's been a fairly high profile director of TV series and movies ever since.
A theatrical trailer and TV spots are included, none of which conveys Thirst's rather unique position in Vampire film history. A Spanish audio track is present as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thirst Blu-ray rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.