Saturday, August 27, 2016

Embrace Your Limitations: TURKEY SHOOT

These days, studio blockbusters can have budgets larger than small countries, CGI can generate anything under and over the sun, and scripts can be remolded by a dozen screenwriters.  Every whim is within the director’s grasp. The results can still be uninspired.  Sometimes the key to really good filmmaking is not getting what you want.  Sudden roadblocks require creative thinking to get around, and can push a director down interesting new paths he or she might never have ventured otherwise.  Everyone has heard the stories of how Spielberg was forced to hide his malfunctioning shark through most of JAWS.  His workarounds re-wrote the book on suspense and produced an untouchable classic of cinema. Obviously, not everyone faced with the limitations of budget, time, and/or resources is going to turn it around and come up with gold.  A lot of films never overcome those challenges.  But even a failure can produce strange, unexpected fruit, and those oddities can be enough to make a movie stand out.  Take Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1982 Australian sci-fi bloodbath, TURKEY SHOOT, for instance.  

The Capsule:
In a dystopian future, objectors to the authoritarian rule are labeled “Deviants” and shipped off to Re-Education camps.  Some are true dissidents and revolutionaries like Paul Anders (Steve Railsback).  Others, like law abiding Chris Walters (Olivia Hussey), are rounded up simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Both Anders and Chris find themselves in the brutal Camp 47.  As hellish as the conditions within the camp are, the tyrannical Camp Master Thatcher (Michael Craig) has even worse plans for them.  Thatcher combats overcrowding by staging “turkey shoots” for society’s degenerate elite, with the prisoners as the prey.  Hunted through the jungle by vicious guards, well-armed sociopaths, and even nastier surprises, Anders and Chris will need a miracle to survive.

TURKEY SHOOT is a strange movie, no doubt.  It’s a satire at heart, much like Paul Bartel’s earlier DEATH RACE 2000.  Trenchard-Smith doesn’t go as over the top as that, but he does keep the performances bombastic and the set-ups outrageous.  The first half of this film is essentially a prison movie, with all the sleaze and violence that comes with that genre.  The sleaze is a little more egalitarian in this crazy future world, at least. There is a shower scene, as required by all prison movies, but like STARSHIP TROOPERS, it's co-ed.  Overall, there isn’t much strife between the prisoners.  I wouldn’t call it solidarity, the inmates are too busy keeping their heads down, but they aren’t trying to shank or abuse each other, either.  The worst of the batch, Dodge (John Ley), is merely an opportunistic douchebag.  If it weren’t for the sadistic guards, it would be a pretty progressive prison.  

The guards are a nasty bit of work, having free reign to harass and torture the inmates.  They put the prisoners through elaborate and difficult challenges (their version of “the box” has a huge weight that the prisoner must hold up or be crushed).  It’s kind of like that TV show, Survivor, but with death at stake rather than idols.  One of the worst is Red, a limping, predatory scumbag.  He targets the timid Chris right out of the gate, continuously raising the threat of sexual violence.  Luckily, the movie is more interested in sticking it to the man than wallowing in the sleaze.  When Red makes his move in the shower, Chris turns the tables (and zips the zipper) on her would-be rapist.  The movie is satisfyingly punitive against misogynists; two lascivious bastards get shot in the dick, others get similarly ignoble fates.

The biggest baddies are running the place.  Chief Guard Ritter (Roger Ward, Max’s boss in MAD MAX) is a psychopathic brute with a luxurious moustache and a penchant for beating people to death for no reason.  This is the guy in charge of keeping the other guards in line, which is saying something.  Above Ritter is the ice cold Camp Master Thatcher.  Tasked with “rehabilitating” the Deviants, he espouses the camp’s contradictory motto: Freedom is Obedience, Obedience is Work, Work is Life (the unofficial motto: If you have time to lean, you have time to be hit in the neck with a rifle butt).  Thatcher is a classic control freak.  He deals with even the slightest disobedience with a disproportionally severe reprisal, often with a benevolent smile on his face.  He would have the world believe his actions are for the prisoners own good, encouraging their realignment with Society, but his real interest is breaking wills and bodies beneath his heel.  Thatcher has higher ambitions than just torturing malcontents, though, which is why he has arranged the prisoner hunts for a bunch of wealthy and influential sleazebags.

Once we get to the MOST DANGEROUS GAME portion of the movie, the villains get even more colorful.  The hunters are the type of amoral, decadent bourgeoisie that are easy to despise.  They are all extremely one dimensional, the only character evolution is in the depths of their depravity.  Still, it makes their inevitable comeuppance that much more satisfying.  Secretary Mallory is a slimy, simpering politician who sets his perverted eye on Chris.  He uses Ritter to shield him through the dangers of the hunt, but wants the kill all for himself.  Jennifer is a cunning socialite with a woman-hating streak even wider than the boys.  She’s a weapons designer, but her personal preference is a custom crossbow with explosive bolts.  My favorite baddie is the sadomasochistic big game hunter, Tito.  It’s not Tito himself that is so great, although he does drive around in a cute little bulldozer and has a quick draw bazooka.  The best thing about Tito is Alph, his hunting companion/pet.  Alph is a werewolf in a top hat.    If I wasn’t in love with TURKEY SHOOT yet, Alph sealed the deal.  He is the most insanely left field thing in a movie that starts out way, way in left field to begin with.  And he is played totally straight, at least compared to everything else we’ve seen.  The only explanation given is that Alph is a freak, and Tito found him in a circus.  Don’t question it, just enjoy his back breaking, toe-eating antics.

Compared to the villains, the heroes come off a little bland.  Steve Railsback plays Anders with his typical intensity (I’ll always remember him best as the abductee nutball Duane Berry from The X-Files).  He’s a fine foil for Thatcher, the unbreakable malcontent fighting for a revolution.  He, like the villains, is a little one note, though.  The big surprise is what a badass Olivia Hussey's character becomes.  Chris Walters (possibly the least interesting action movie name ever) goes through most of the film acting like a frightened rabbit, but she still manages to [spoilers] chop off Ritter’s hands to save Anders, blow off Jennifer’s head with her own explosive arrow, and mow down dozens of camp guards during the insurrection.  Anders is thrown a bone by getting to chew up Thatcher into pieces with a  machine gun, but it turns out Chris is the Most Dangerous Deviant around.

The best thing about this movie, werewolves aside, is that we are unceremoniously dumped into a dystopian future already in progress.  Stock footage of public unrest plays over the opening credits, then – pow – we are in the back of a Re-Ed van with the new batch of Deviants. No voice over, no text crawl, no nothing.  Anders and Chris have short backstories, but they don’t really explain anything other than Don’t Fuck With the Man.  Clearly, an authoritarian government is in control, and it doesn’t take any shit.  We don’t know if it is global or regional government or how the world got into the state it’s in.  We don’t even know the year (they say it in the trailer, but not the film).  It’s similar to the original MAD MAX, where the audience is left to fill in the blanks.  Where MAD MAX had a society gradually disintegrating into lawlessness, though, TURKEY SHOOT’s fascist world is fully formed and totally in control.  

The original script did explain things.  The opening of the film was supposed to be all about life in the 1984 (the book, not the year) style society.  The second act was to be the camp, then came the turkey shoot.  Before everything could get going, though, Brian Trenchard-Smith had both the financing and the shooting schedule cut.  He had to drop the opening and expand out the second and third acts.  There is still a bit of cheeky social commentary to be found (the ultra-conservative Camp Master shared the same name as the UK Prime Minister, after all), but Trenchard-Smith had to ramp up the action, sleaze, and gore to make up for the shortfall.  It worked out fine, in my opinion.  We’ve seen oppressive futuristic governments before.  What we haven’t seen is a werewolf in a top hat.  

If ever there was a movie that begged for a sequel, it’s TURKEY SHOOT.  The end of the movie finds Anders and Chris victorious, having liberated the camp and put down all the baddies, but there is a definite feeling of “what now?”  There’s still that soulless, unspecified totalitarian regime to overthrow.  Unfortunately, we’ll never know happened.  TURKEY SHOOT was not a success when initially released to dumbfound audiences, only gaining cult status years later.  The closest it came to a sequel was the 2014 remake, not directed by Trenchard-Smith, and not seen by me.  It looks all grim and serious.  I’m willing to bet there is not a single werewolf in it.  I was momentarily intrigued by the poster, which I thought showed an awesomely miscast Steve Carell, but it turned out to be Dominic Purcell instead. Missed opportunities.

Trenchard-Smith went on to introduce the world to Nicole Kidman (and her original nose) in BMX BANDITS, continue his dystopian satire theme with the brilliant DEAD END DRIVE-IN, and eventually make the schizocinema fave NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2.    I doubt any of those movies ended up the way he first envisioned them, and it is probably for the better.  Let’s hear it for limitations.

C Chaka

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