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Home / Film / Feature Articles / The American Habitual Victim Lands in the Land Down Under: Looking Back at Innocent Prey (1984)

The American Habitual Victim Lands in the Land Down Under: Looking Back at Innocent Prey (1984)

Many horror films featuring serial killers and psychopaths as the central ‘monster’ or perceived threat, solidly remain intensely invested in understanding these maniacal cretins and fixate on the complexities (and sometimes simplicities) of such characters. However, Colin Eggleston’s Innocent Prey (1984) examines the unique possibility of the ‘perpetual victim’ or the persecuted heroine who ‘seems to attract’ such hostility in an almost supernatural way. Starring the plucky and adorable P.J. Soles (Carrie, 1976; Halloween, 1978) as Cathy Wills, this Australian production presents the American star as a continually victimised good person in a bad situation, and Eggleston paints the Australian/American relationship with a finely articulated voice that makes an astute and intriguing commentary on cultural difference and societal and juridical similarities. Distributed at the same time the American Cup and the Luis Vuitton Cup dominated news reports in 1983 with the ship Australia II making waves in the press, Innocent Prey (even with its troubled production and release history) draws a zealous vested interest in two continents that share fundamental resemblances.

While the fevered misogyny and violent outbursts of the two psychotics in the film ring out loud – in two dimensional, engaging cartoonish flair – it is P.J. Soles’ performance that is an anchor and gravitas, with her acting choices displaying a rich and dynamic energy that is also completely revelatory. Having played incredibly memorable ‘second bananas’ in horror masterpieces as the aforementioned Carrie and Halloween, this is Soles’ chance to shine as a central character completely developed and without teen years holding her back and kookiness suffocating her. She is also permitted to step out from the shadow of the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Allen, and is more than capable as a leading lady delivering a nuanced, sympathetic and carefully constructed take on a woman who is in too deep.

The stylized violence and relentlessness of plot twists are served up with glee and run in heady parallel with the continual aesthetic comparison that is made between Dallas, Texas and Australia’s newly understood cosmopolitan façade. At one point in the film, Soles talks about the land Down Under and says “They speak English” which epitomizes the film’s stance on how America views Australia and how this perception is forced to shift when the story takes its heroine to Sydney with a welcoming wharf and crisp picturesque settings. The opening credit sequence establishes the American/Australian camaraderie shared between two women, and this is reflective of two cultures that do not in fact clash, but seem to be a saving grace for each other. While the American defends Texas (“The rest of the world still thinks of Dallas as a ‘cow town’”), the Australian promotes normalcy and escape. During this opening, we don’t initially see these two women, but we hear their voices – this is Soles’ Cathy and her Aussie friend Gwen (Susan Stenmark) – and this is intercut with a threatening image of Cathy’s businessman husband Joe (Kit Taylor), sharpening his razor and looking menacing. Eventually the film will have Joe taking part in the grisly slayings of prostitutes, which is a pathological pastime (Cathy explains that “He liked it!”) but his monstrousness is made all the more unsettling because the film intelligently bounces from viscerally effective extreme violent outbreaks into an acute character study fixed on Cathy, rather than her oppressive husband or the manic loner she encounters later in the piece when she shifts to Australia.

Cathy bearing witness to her husband’s violent attack on a prostitute (Deborah Voorhees, who genre fans would remember from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, 1985) is an achievement in filmmaking on Eggleston’s behalf. Here we have a Giallo-style take on voyeuristic sensibilities where an innocent wife is forced to see her husband not only make love to another woman but, moments later, slash her throat. Soles’ wide eyes which evoke a ‘stunned beyond comprehension’ visage and her brow wet with perspiration, is reminiscent of the Italian gore-soaked ventures that leave a heavy influence on Eggleston’s film, while the image of blood spilling down the prostitute’s chest is provocative and stylistically important to one of the film’s most important undercurrent themes – that gushing life is exactly what the film makes comment on; that the free-flowing nature of bloodshed is akin to a chain reaction of persistent violence.

P.J. Soles gets to move through the film with dynamism and complexity and as she rides her sturdy arc, the film remains faithful in its service of making thematic parallels between Dallas and Sydney –   the American cowboy mentality and the left-over ‘good ole boys’ such as Martin Balsam’s sheriff and Australia as a country now looked upon as a progressive continent but with hangovers from the ‘yokel’ with the earthy divorcee in Grigor Taylor’s character of Rick.

Joe (Kit Taylor) is a dodgy businessman from New Zealand with a sick perversion – picking up prostitutes and slicing them up in hotel bathtubs. Once he is outed as a shifty agent and threatened by two Texan caricatures, he loses himself to his demented desires, eventually leaving nameless sex workers behind and focusing on tormenting his wife Cathy. Told that “there is no such thing as a habitual victim” by Balsam’s fatherly sheriff (the one male principle in the film without any sinister ulterior motives), Cathy makes a run from her husband but ends up becoming a point of fixation by an Australian landlord who is another pervert with a deep rooted hatred of women. Both aspects of the film – the American component and Australian – are equally enthralling and energetic, and both are distinctly characteristic of the respective continental style. During the Joe/Cathy conflict, the film is remarkably American in its representation of ‘stalk and slash’ and when Cathy gets a phone call from the sheriff warning her about Joe’s escape, it rings very similar to the classic When A Stranger Calls (1979), which is a film that owes a lot of its eeriness to mavericks such as Val Lewton. Both Innocent Prey and When A Stranger Calls are clear descendants of Midnight Lace (1960) which uses the concept of the sinister British represented by Rex Harrison and the victimised American in Doris Day, and while that film employs masterful use of framing and composition, so does Innocent Prey. Eggleston’s camera allows the characters to come into frame and then leave frame, creating space and light that can be penetrated by a startling image, such as Joe’s hand crashing through the glass panel door and grabbing hold of a terrified Cathy.

As aforementioned, the relentlessness of plot turns emphasizes Eggleston’s refusal to let the audience feel ‘safe’, and this is reflected in scenes such as Joe killing all three police officers that come to Cathy’s ‘rescue’, killing wardens at a jail and climbing over barbed wire, crashing through a pantry and becoming more bestial as the movie moves forward. Along with this ferocity, the film is peppered with clever lines that exploit American ignorance such as “Australia? Weren’t they all criminals or something?”, however, the film never tips into the ‘dumb American’ trope because it has the heroine rebuild in Australia – even reclaiming her maiden name – and being honoured, respected and welcomed by US-loving goodtime Aussies. The party sequence where Cathy is meeting a group of people is a testament to this, as everyone (be they stable and healthy or emotionally disturbed) are all drawn to this American in a brand new country. Cathy makes the biggest impression on two men, Phillip (John Warnok), the landlord whose first appearance is creeping through the jacaranda tree and is later described by Cathy as “not socially mobile”, and Rick who has a scene with Cathy where he defends Australia and how the country is detached from British rule. His talk about Australia’s emu and America’s soaring eagle is a clever metaphor that paints Australia as a stunted nation, as opposed to America being a virile all-conquering one.

As previously mentioned, the film is a perceptive character piece, with secondary elements taking shape and influence such as Cathy’s drinking as something that hangs over the film like an interesting addition to the makeup of her character without being overstated, while the essence of Phillip is bravely concocted in broad strokes as a skittish, clearly damaged nutcase. There is nothing at all subtle about Phillip’s eccentricities or mental instabilities, and this is fun to watch. Making him tech savvy with a deep understanding of electronics gives an additional edge, and when he manipulates electrical currents to send shockwaves into people, it is a very quirky (Australian) method of offing people. Essentially, the film embraces a magpie’s nest of eclectic characteristics that marries American traditional spookshow with Australian oddity: Brian May’s music is multi-dimensional, complicated and pays tribute to oft-inspirational composers like Bernard Hermann; Phillip is a magnetic Oz-psycho who uses TV monitors as a ‘mask’; the richness of Rick’s deep sadness about his ex-wife and his children gives the character some inspired depth and even when the film falls into exposition, it is delivered with passionate flair by Soles – something that could possibly drag the film along, actually works thanks to her take on the quarter page monologue. The film truly belongs to Soles who, at that particular point (post-monologue), falls into a manic state that goes from crying to laughing and bursting back into tears. It is a measured and poignant moment and made all the more intelligent when she is interrupted by a phone call from America with false news of Joe’s supposed ‘death’ which celebrates the film’s drive to examine the idea of a false hope of safety – something that Colin Eggleston manipulates brilliantly within his straight forward but always engaging plot.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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