Stone Review

While under the influence of drugs, Toad (Hugh Keays-Byrne) witnesses a political assassination. Toad is a member of The Gravediggers, a gang of Satan-worshipping bikies led by The Undertaker (Sandy Harbutt). When some of their number are killed, the Gravediggers become aware that the assassin Toad saw is now after them. Enter Stone (Ken Shorter). He's a cop who offers to ride undercover with The Gravediggers so he can find out who's out to get them...

Stone, released in 1974, was an auteur effort by Sandy Harbutt: he produced, directed, co-wrote and production designed the film as well as having a hand in the music and playing the leading role of The Undertaker. Stone was a box office hit in Australia, despite the (then) stumbling block of a R certificate. It made much less of an impact overseas, having a brief cinema release in the UK in 1980 (in a shorter version – see below) before appearing on video. In retrospect it has some interest as a forerunner of Mad Max, both films dealing with antisocial bikie gangs whose members bear odd nicknames, eponymous lawmen who are as hard as the criminals they confront, and even some of the same actors (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Vincent Gil) turning up in both films. Stone even has a character called Bad Max.

The similarities shouldn't be taken too far, as the major difference between Stone and Mad Max comes down to one word: talent. In Mad Max George Miller took a tiny budget and a none-too-good script and made some exciting scenes out of them. Stone on the other hand, drags badly between a few action setpieces. It has some novelty value by being told from the viewpoint of the bikies rather than the undercover cop (Stone doesn't appear for over twenty minutes) but historical interest notwithstanding, it's not much more than routine. Some of the cast went on to better things: Helen Morse has little to do as Stone's posh girlfriend, but she's seen to better effect in Picnic at Hanging Rock and as the title role of Caddie. Bill Hunter has a small role, minus his usual moustache, as a barman. Harbutt's background was in acting and directing commercials, and Stone is his only cinema feature as director. (At the end of the 70s he tried and failed to set up a second feature, The Drums of Myrrh.)

A note on the running time: on its Australian cinema release, Stone ran somewhere between 126 and 132 minutes, depending on your source. After its release, Harbutt re-edited the film to its present length (99 minutes without the PAL speed-up), and this cut version is the only one now available. This makes Stone one of the relatively few films where the director's cut is shorter than the release version: other Australian examples include Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. I haven't seen the longer cut, which reputedly is just as lacking in pace as the short version. I have to wonder if a lot of Helen Morse's role ended up on the cutting room floor: she's not in the film long enough to justify her third billing.

Unfortunately, Magna's DVD is transferred from a print that has clearly seen better days: it's washed out and grainy, with signs of print damage here and there. It's not terrible, just not very good, and I suspect reflects the state of the original materials. It's a full-frame open-matte transfer, which is just about acceptable, though the original cinema ratio (1.75:1, estimated by eye, which is near enough to 16:9 to make no difference) would have been preferable. The sound is the original mono, given a single-channel mix on this DVD: like the picture, it's adequate but no more. It's fortunate that you can hear the dialogue, as there are no subtitles. There are twenty chapter stops.

This DVD redeems itself somewhat in its extras. First off, theere's the trailer, a rather overlong (3:00) effort in 4:3 and mono sound (two-channel this time). The featurette "The Making of Stone" runs 22:42 and is divided into twenty-four chapters. Narrated by John Laws, it was clearly made at the time of the film's production and contains interviews with the principal actors, behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the finished film. Oddly, this featurette is in black and white, apart from the colour film extracts. Why this is, I don't know – I presume colour TV had arrived in Australia long before 1974?

The remaining extra is the slide show, with commentary by Harbutt. This is viewable in four separate parts or all together. The four parts are: Cast (9:43), Crew (0:53), Locations (7:22) and Bikes (2:11). Harbutt is certainly articulate enough to make you wish he'd recorded a commentary; he's an interesting speaker though a little too prone to backslapping. Some or all of the half hour removed from the film would have been worth having as deleted scenes: after all, this footage, like the scenes cut from Picnic at Hanging Rock, is part of a version many people will be familiar with.

The years have not been kind to Stone. However, it does have a place in Australian film history, and genre fans in particular will want to take a look. The picture and sound quality aren't anything to write home about, but this DVD has some worthwhile extras.

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