Everything might be big in Texas, but everything in Australia is deadly. It has the world’s deadliest snakes, the world’s deadliest spiders, the world’s deadliest kangaroos. And if movies are to be believed, and why shouldn’t they, the world’s deadliest people. I’m sure there must be some safe people in Sydney, but I don’t watch movies about people in Sydney. The Australian movies I watch are in the Outback. People are not safe in the Outback, in any sense. The depiction of the Outback is like the depiction of New York City in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. It’s a dangerous place filled with crazy people who mean to do you harm. The Outback has slightly less porn theaters, though. Like the period New York street punks, Outback crazies love to prey on innocent outsiders who stumble into their territory. What happens, though, when the innocents themselves are from the Outback? FORTRESS (1985) aims to show you.
On the outskirts of the outskirts of civilization, single-room school house teacher Sally Jones, aka Miss, has her class interrupted by four gun-toting masked freaks. She and all nine of her students, ranging in age from 8 to 15, are forced into a van and carted off into the bush. They are sealed up in a cave while the kidnappers depart to figure out how to set up a ransom demand in the middle of nowhere. Sally leads the kids on a dangerous escape, only to be recaptured later at a farmhouse. They manage to get away again, taking out one of the kidnappers in the process. Holding up in an easily defendable hilltop cave, Miss and her students prepare for a final fight with the remaining kidnappers. It’s school kids vs. psychotic reprobates, and there might not be as much difference as you’d think.
FORTRESS was made for HBO, making it a few steps up from the standard made for TV movie of the day. HBO meant that it could have profanity, blood, and (brief) nudity, so it was pretty much a real movie. It’s a well-made film. The acting is skillful across the board, it has tight pacing, and the script is solid. In spite of this, it often has a down and dirty exploitation feel. The kidnappers are genuinely scary. The freaky animal masks are bad enough, but the people under the masks are worse. They all have that edgy vibe of unscrupulous losers with that first taste of being in control. The goal of the ransom gives them just a hair of restraint, but it could clearly go off the rails at any second. There is a strong threat of sexual violence towards Sally and fifteen year old Narelle. Sometimes it is insinuated, sometimes it’s blatant. Every moment with them is extremely uncomfortable. The other kidnappers wear animal masks, but the leader is in a Father Christmas one. Now, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Christmas horror, and this motherfucker is without a doubt the most disturbing Santa Claus ever. These guys are so bad that the one in the Daffy Duck mask is played by Vernon Wells, one of the lead psychos from ROAD WARRIOR. And he’s the most reasonable one of the lot.
You do have to question their logic, though. Sure, one teacher and nine kids may be easy pickings (at first), but they are in the middle of nowhere. None of the kids look well-off. Their parents are most likely dirt poor farmers like everyone else there. How much ransom are the kidnappers expecting from that bunch, three, four hundred dollars tops? That’s Australian dollars, too, not American dollars. Will they accept payment in barley? Dingo pelts, maybe? Their get rich quick scheme seems to be missing the get rich part of the equation.
In addition to their seriously flawed concept, the kidnappers really misjudged the choice of kidnappees. On paper, it does sound like a sure thing (though I doubt these guys ever put any plans down on paper, seems like more of a drunken epiphany kind of decision). Nine little kids and a schoolmarm, what could go wrong? Except that these are little kids living in the fucking Australian Outback (technically it’s the Australian bush, but Outback sounds better). They grow up resourceful there, because they sure as hell don’t have actual resources. The kids start out scared, and the kindergartners do whine and cry a bit, but under Sally’s firm guidance, they become a serious and capable pack. As soon as they are sealed in the first cave, they start McGuyvering shit to escape. They respond to the increasing threat by becoming more dangerous themselves. It’s deceiving. They still look like cute little kids, but they aren’t messing around. The booby traps they set to protect their “fortress” cave are not like the ones in HOME ALONE, they are like the ones in PREDATOR. An innocent school yard rhyme they are always singing takes on more sinister implications near the end. These little bastards mean business.
As cunning as these pint-sized survivalists are, they wouldn’t stand a chance without their teacher. Sally is a fantastic character, and Rachel Ward plays her perfectly. She is strong, quick witted, and very determined. She feels like a real person, though. She gets scared, she messes up sometimes. She has doubts. Once, when she has to swim through an underwater passage to escape the first cave, she panics and almost drowns. Her limitations don’t stop her, though. I like that she never stops being a teacher. The first thing she tells the kids when they are being loaded into the kidnappers’ van is that they are going on an adventure. When they are talking about how to escape, she calls it a council of war. She keeps her students calm, working together, and on track, whether it’s rationing out food or making spears. The kids may be in mortal danger, but she still reminds them to watch their language. I hope someone nominated her for the Australian Teacher of the Year award after this.
If you are wondering just how far this movie will push the juvenile justice, the answer is (SPOILER) all the fucking way. When our pack finally gets the drop on Father Christmas, everyone from Sally to the 8 year olds get their licks in. Except for Tommy and Narelle, who are hurt, but they give their murder proxy to the other kids. The pack has become so determined and merciless that they don’t just kill Father Christmas, they completely butcher him. Again, including the cute little 8 year olds. Instead of showing the damage being done, the camera stays on their savage, snarling faces, which is even more unsettling. The greatest thing, though, is the next scene. It goes from them brutally murdering a (debatable) human being, to the whole class sitting outside the school enjoying story time as if nothing had ever happened. Of course, the story is Beowulf, and the kids seem to cheerfully identify with the notion of keeping a trophy of an epic battle (which will payoff brilliantly in the last scene). When the cops drive up, it’s not to congratulate them on surviving a horrible ordeal, it’s because they found the bodies. As they question Sally about the inconsistencies in her story (namely, leaving out the class participation mutilation), the kids silently file into the school behind the cops and just stare at them. It’s like a scene from THE BIRDS. The cops wisely decide to drop the whole thing and get hell out of there. School is in, bitches.
I’m so curious about what happens to the kids afterward. I figure that either: a) they become the Warriors of the Wasteland from ROAD WARRIOR, or b) they grow up normally, because this kind of thing is just a coming of age ritual in the Australian bush. I’m leaning toward the latter.
Note to self: Never visit the Australian bush.
Note to Australians: I’m kidding, of course. Please don’t hurt me.