Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Once Over Twice: Patrick

(1978) Directed by Richard Franklin; Written by Everett De Roche; Starring: Susan Penhaligon, Robert Helpmann, Rod Mullinar, Julia Blake and Robert Thompson; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“And how’s our creature from the id this afternoon?” – Dr. Roget (Robert Helpmann)

Australia Month kicks off with the lesser-known, but no less-deserving supernatural suspense film Patrick.  I learned about this movie through the excellent documentary Not Quite Hollywood, which is a great primer for Aussie exploitation cinema of the 70s and 80s (If you haven’t seen it by now, why not?).  While Patrick reminded me a bit of early De Palma (especially Carrie) and Hitchcock, director Richard Franklin manages to pay homage to his influences without seeming derivative.  It’s a nifty little thriller that transcends its modest roots.

Produced for approximately $400,000 (Australian), Franklin’s third feature film originally ran 140 minutes, but was trimmed to 112 minutes.  The U.S. version was cut more drastically, and dubbed to mask the Australian accents.  Thankfully, the final Australian cut is readily available on DVD, which served as the source for this review.  According to Franklin, Patrick was influenced by two separate events: a fake gorilla exhibit in a British circus sideshow, which was designed to freak out the bewildered patrons; the second, a supposedly “true” story about a man who becomes paralyzed after jumping out of a window, following the discovery of his wife in bed with another man.  The finished product represents a blend of these two disparate events, with a masterful combination of shock and suspense. 

In the opening scene, we witness the incident that leads the title character to his lamentable current state.  After electrocuting his mother and her lover in a tub, Patrick lapses into a coma.  He’s taken to a private hospital, the Roget Clinic, and kept alive through a respirator and a team of nurses who regard him as little more than a vegetable.  Patrick, however, proves the old adage that still waters run deep.  Robert Thompson creates a truly memorable and creepy performance as Patrick, with his dead, unblinking stare,* creating one of the most iconic images in Australian film.

* Fun fact: Prescription eye drops were used, so Thompson could stare without blinking for up to a minute at a time.

Susan Penhaligon turns in a fine performance as Kathy Jacquard, a new nurse who’s been assigned to Room 15, where Patrick resides.  She believes there’s activity inside Patrick’s head, despite the fact that the only sign of life he exhibits is a spit response.  The response is dismissed by Dr. Roget (Robert Helpmann) as simply an involuntary action of the nervous system, which he demonstrates through one of his brain-dead frogs.  Roget’s pronouncement defines how he approaches Patrick, like one of his many frogs.  He’s a test subject to be studied, poked, prodded, and ultimately discarded in the name of science.  His disregard for Patrick’s safety is exemplified by a scene later in the film, when he performs ECT (shock treatment) on his comatose patient.

In addition to Helpmann’s unethical doctor, Patrick features several other noteworthy performances.  Julia Blake (who must be channeling Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched),   is convincingly loathsome as Matron Cassidy, the hospital’s head nurse.  She regards Kathy with contempt, and considers Patrick to be nothing more than a waste of space.  Rod Mullinar plays Kathy’s estranged husband Ed, who hopes to reconcile their fractured marriage.  He becomes embroiled in a love triangle with his wife and Dr. Wright (Bruce Barry), a neurologist she’s enlisted to prove her patient is self-aware.  Neither Ed nor Dr. Wright, however, suspect there is another party vying for Kathy’s affections.

Everett De Roche’s literate script alternately references Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  De Roche directly references the Bard’s work as Dr. Roget damns Patrick as: “A devil.  A born devil on whose nature, nurture can never stick.”  By extension, De Roche references Forbidden Planet, with the proverbial monster that’s unleashed by Patrick’s jealousy.  Patrick is a force of unbridled anger, without the governing influence of the superego.  One influence not cited by Franklin is Mad Love (link to review), which seems to be Patrick’s spiritual ancestor.  Both films borrow the same Oscar Wilde quote: “each man kills the thing he loves.”
Displaying the same blind obsession as Dr. Gogol, Patrick acts out his darker impulses as he attempts to eliminate anyone that stands between him and his object of desire.

Composer Brian May, a frequent fixture in Australian cinema, contributes a particularly effective score that’s evocative of Bernard Herrmann’s work.  May does a wonderful job of playfully ratcheting up the tension, lulling you into a false sense of security one moment, only to be driven into a state of disarray the next.

* Fun fact: May’s original score was replaced by Goblin for the Italian release.  Perhaps a future DVD will contain both scores, so a proper A/B comparison could be made.

As a young filmmaker in the late 1960s, Franklin had the opportunity to observe Hitchcock at work on Topaz.  Hitchcock’s influence is evident in Patrick, which includes numerous callbacks to other films.  In his DVD commentary Franklin was transparent about the obvious Psycho references, from the film’s title design to Patrick’s backstory, to the old house that serves as a private hospital (and bears more than a passing resemblance to the Bates home).  It should be no surprise that his film served as the perfect calling card for his suitability as director of Psycho II.

Franklin referred to Patrick as a “roller coaster ride,” which seems an apt description.  Like the amusement park ride, the film builds nervous anticipation as it climbs gradually upward, before eventually taking the plunge into a bevy of uncertain twists and turns.  To fall under Patrick’s trance is to go along for the ride without asking a lot of unanswerable questions (What’s the range of his telekinetic abilities?  How can he possibly know what everyone’s doing at a given moment?).  It’s the sort of thing that you either roll with, or use as an excuse to pull apart.  I was disheartened to see that it only received an overall rating of 5.8 on IMDB, but that belies the worth of this terribly underrated thriller.  Apparently others saw the value in this film, since it spawned an unauthorized Italian sequel in the early 80s, and a remake is in the works.  My advice is to forget about the imposters and shameless “re-imaginings,” and watch the real deal – an example of Australian suspense at its finest.

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