Razorback Review

While Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) is looking after his baby grandson, a giant razorback pig crashes through the house and carries off the child. Jake is put on trial for the killing of the child, but is released for lack of evidence. Two years later, news reporter Beth (Judy Morris) visits the Australian community of Gamulla to report on kangaroo killings. She's made less than welcome, and when she disappears, her husband Carl (Gregory Harrison) arrives to look for her but as well as the giant pig on the rampage, brothers Dicko and Benny Baker (David Argue and Chris Haywood) have things to hide...

Razorback Blu-ray review

Razorback was not a commercial success in its day, but it certainly didn't look like much else in the cinema when it came out. In the UK, that was in 1985 and when I first saw it, knowing nothing about it in advance. After more than thirty years on, it still stands up very well. I'd go so far to say that it remains its director Russell Mulcahy's best film, and I'm including Highlander in that, even though that has a bigger cult following. Although Mulcahy has continued to make films, his later ones are frequently underwhelming, for example 2003's Swimming Upstream.

While many of the directors who made their first feature films in the 1970s had their break from making commercials (Ridley and Tony Scott, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and others), less than a decade later, another route in to the industry was via music promo videos. Videos had been around for some time, but come the turn of the decade, the video was an increasingly elaborate and highly-budgeted part of the package, sometimes more memorable than the song which was the reason for its existence. One of the leading names in this medium was an Australian, Mulcahy.

Born in Melbourne in 1953, Mulcahy began work as an editor for Australian television and made his first videos as unofficial ones for television music shows, to accompany songs which didn't have them available. Around 1976, he was in the UK, and many of the most striking videos of the later 1970s and early 80s were his: Buggles's “Video Killed the Radio Star” (the first video played on MTV when it began in 1979) was one, and his clients included many of the biggest acts of the time. His work for Duran Duran epitomised the early 1980s, lavishly made in exotic locales. It was while he was making the video for “Hungry Like the Wolf” in Sri Lanka that producer Hal McElroy offered him Razorback. It's widely assumed that this was Mulcahy's first feature film, and he says as much in the extras on this disc, but he is the director of Derek and Clive Get the Horn, which in 1980 had the distinction of being rejected by the BBFC for cinema release (passed uncut later on video) for Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's pervasive use of what the Board would now refer to as strong and very strong language.

Razorback, written by Everett de Roche from a novel by Peter Brennan, was shot during the summer of 1983 in and around the desert mining city of Broken Hill, New South Wales, a perennial film location. Cinematographer Dean Semler was certainly familiar with the place from his work on Mad Max 2. shot there two years earlier. Studio work was done in Sydney, two establishing shots at the start in New York, with the final scene between Gregory Harrison and Arkie Whiteley filmed in Los Angeles.

Razorback Blu-ray review

I've referred to Razorback, auteurishly, as Mulcahy's film, and it's true it is very noticeably directed, with some particularly eye-catching scene transitions. It's an at times quite surreal film, but one that still covers its genre bases and is very tense in places. One of the weaknesses of many of the video generation of filmmakers, as it was with the commercials generation before them, is an undeniable eye for visuals with less of one for story and narrative. One reason why Razorback avoids this is that I regard this film as a team effort, and that begins with the script. De Roche was the best writer of the Ozploitation era and one reason why some of the films he wrote were the best the directors ever made: look no further than the original Long Weekend, directed by Colin Eggleston, for an example. De Roche's script gives Razorback a solid coherent core, allowing it to explode in all directions as it does. Dean Semler has to take a lot of credit as well.

Born in 1943, he broke through into features in the later 1970s after working in short films and documentaries, and had attracted notice for his work on Mad Max 2. His bold use of primary colours (and not to mention the many scenes shot in smoke, a Mulcahy trademark) is a standout and pushes the film way beyond naturalism. (In one scene there are two moons in the sky. This was by accident, as an artificial moon had been created without realising that the real one was in shot. After the film was released, Semler received a call from Steven Spielberg while on holiday asking how he had achieved this. It was through Spielberg that Semler met Kevin Costner, which resulted in Semler photographing Dances With Wolves, which won him an Oscar.) Semler won the Australian Film Institute Award (now the AACTA Award) for his work. The film's other win went to another reason why I call this a team effort, editor William M. Anderson. The synthesiser-based score was by Iva Davies, frontman of Icehouse, for whom Mulcahy had directed several videos, including the one for their biggest international hit, “Hey Little Girl”, which you can see part of in this film. Also worth noting is that the second unit was directed by Arch Nicholson, later to make his own giant-fauna-on-the-rampage film, Dark Age.

That comment about the film exploding in all directions applies to the acting as well, with Chris Haywood and especially David Argue vivid human villains that in another film may not have sat well with the more naturalistic acting of the rest of the cast. Argue was fond of improvising, which made Bill Kerr, who had learned his lines the old-school way, frequently disconcerted. Kerr had like many Australian actors of his generation spend much of the 1950s and 1960s in the UK for the greater opportunities, being particularly known for his work with Tony Hancock. Now in his sixties, he created a run of sometimes ambiguous patriarchal figures (see also Gallipoli, to name but one) of which this is a more obsessive and broken variation. Judy Morris, who has effectively the lead role in the first act, is saddled with a not-entirely-convincing American accent. Gregory Harrison at the time was a television star, playing the lead in the 1977/8 Logan's Run and a major role in Trapper John, M.D. It was while he was in Australia doing publicity for the latter that he was sent the script for Razorback, and his time in the country allowed him to indulge his passion for surfing. His is the lead role, but probably the least showy of the principals, holding the film together between Argue at one extreme and Kerr at the other. Arkie Whiteley had had small roles in Mad Max 2 and other films, but this is her best big-screen role, resourceful and not just there to prove that the lead character is heterosexual. The rest of her career was mostly on television, and she died of cancer in 2001, aged just thirty-seven.

Razorback was picked up by Warner Brothers overseas, but wasn't any more a commercial success as it had been at home. In the USA at least, its Australianness was blamed, particularly the strong slang coming from the Baker brothers. It picked up a cult following which it has to this day. The industry did notice it though: Mulcahy's next film was Highlander.

Razorback Blu-ray review

THE DISC

Umbrella's Blu-ray of Razorback is a single disc encoded for all regions, number four in Umbrella's “Beyond Genres” series.

The transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.40:1. Umbrella's earlier Blu-ray (which I don't have to hand) had an interlaced transfer and ran at twenty-five frames per second, therefore speeding the film up by about four minutes. This new Blu-ray is 1080p and runs correctly at twenty-four fps. The transfer is from a 4K scan of the interpositive. It looks very good, with the strong colours characteristic of this film and natural and film-like grain. There's the occasional brief scratch, and at one point a white frameline flashes into view at the top of the picture, but nothing too distracting.

Razorback was a relatively early Australian Dolby Stereo film, and as with others from that time, you have the sense that as they'd paid extra for it they might as well use it. Surround sound announces itself right from the start, with the thump of helicopter blades, and there's plenty of directional sound as well as Davies's music score in the surrounds. The track on this disc is DTS-HD MA 5.1, remixed slightly from the original analogue track (which would be 4.0) and with some bass enhancement – those chopper blades, for example. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing, and I didn't spot any errors in them.

The extras begin with a commentary by Russell Mulcahy, moderated by Shayne Armstrong. Although Mulcahy does occasionally need to be prompted, this is an informative talk, though inevitably much of it overlaps with the other extras. That's particularly the case with “Jaws on Trotters” (73:44), a 2005 documentary carried over from the previous disc, featuring interviews with Mulcahy, Gregory Harrison, Judy Morris, Chris Haywood, producer Hal McElroy, Iva Davies and special effects man Bob McCarron. This documentary was the work of Mark Hartley, who made quite a few retrospective making-ofs for Australian films before directing his own documentary Not Quite Hollywood.

Also on this disc are complete interviews (84:41) that Hartley carried out for that 2008 film, with Harrison, Morris, Mulcahy, Everett de Roche (otherwise absent from this disc – he died in 2014), McElroy and McCarron. Harrison is also the subject of a new audio interview (30:57), an interesting listen.

When Razorback was completed, its distributors edited it before submitting it to the OFLC (the Australian censor), with the aim to receiving the advisory M rating instead of the R, which would have restricted the film to the over-eighteens. The cuts totalled approximately thirty-three seconds. Razorback was given a M, and this was the version which played in cinemas at home and overseas. However, when the film was released on VHS in Australia, the distributor issued it uncut with a sticker calling it an “uncut R version” - though the OFLC actually passed this at M as well, making the whole exercise pointless. In the UK, the film was given an 18 certificate and it still has that rating, being last submitted to the BBFC in 2005. In terms of gore, the film was always on the borderline between 15 and 18, and it's quite possible that the cut material would have that rating nowadays too. However, the film has a prolonged scene of sexual threat, as Dicko attempts to rape Beth, and that's the likely reason to tip this over to an 18.

Unfortunately, film elements for the cut scenes no longer exist and they only survives in the videotape master. They are available on this disc both as a “grisly deleted scenes” (the whole of the scenes in question, with an optional commentary by Mulcahy and Armstrong, running 2:30) or by watching the whole film in its VHS cut. This runs 95:00 (the main feature is 94:51 but includes 0:24 of a Greater Union distributors' ident at the start) and is there if you want to watch the uncut film panned and scanned into 4:3, VHS upscaled to HD and looking it (but running at the right speed), mono sound, and a voiceover when the end credits start telling you to “Don't turn off – keep watching for further movie previews.”

“A Certain Piggish Nature” (24:10) is a four-hander panel discussion clearly recorded at the same time as the ones on Umbrella's Blu-rays of Long Weekend and Dark Age, with Lee Gambin, Sally Christie, Emma Westwood and, moderating this time, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Given that they are all film critics and historians, this is a more in-depth and thematic discussion of the film than you might otherwise get, with a particular interest in eco-horror. Well worth listening to.

Finally, there are the theatrical (2:22) and VHS (1:59) trailers for Razorback and a self-navigating image gallery (27:16).

Film
8 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

Visually striking and often surreal, Razorback is one of the key Oxploitation films of the 1980s and stands up well more than thirty years later.

8

out of 10

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