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Mr. Whippy on the Prowl: The Suburban Terror of Snapshot (1979)

Bare breasts – of the female variety – was considered an almost obligatory part of 1970s Australian cinema, particularly of the independent or exploitation variety. Even if it was just a fleeting glimpse, female nudity was always highlighted in a film’s advertising campaign as a sure-fire and reliable way to lure in some sort of potential audience. Such was the novelty of seeing boobs on cinema and drive-in screens (not to mention television, a literal boob tube) throughout that decade, the age of sexual liberation and the loosening of film censorship restrictions, ushered in with the introduction of the R rating by the Australian Classification Board in 1970, which restricted the viewing of material deemed overly raunchy and/or violent to audiences aged 18 years and over.

So it is not hard to see why, when Snapshot was first released in Australia in May of 1979, that much of the publicity for the film centred around one of its female stars (a young Sigrid Thornton) cavorting topless in a rather chilly-looking ocean as a photographer’s camera clicks and whirrs in the background. Another entry in the filmography of producer Antony I. Ginnane (certainly the most prolific and possibly most influential producer during Ozploitation’s golden age), Snapshot is a curious film to look back upon. In many respects, it is more like a television movie than a theatrical feature film, such is its relative tameness, especially when compared to a lot of the other locally-produced drive-in fare of the day. It relies a lot more on character than it does on shock or violence, and apart from the one topless scene on the beach, there is not much more in the way of flesh or titillation to be found. It’s easy to see why the film originally struggled to find its audience – it was a bit too tame for the hardened drive-in and exploitation crowd, and not respectable enough for the arthouse crowd. But it does have a nice sense of class, and a slick glossiness about it which perfectly suits its storyline and theme, not to mention an element of the absurd, while still managing to deliver some intrigue and a few grindhouse thrills.

First conceived as a film scripted by Christopher Fitchett and titled Centrefold, Snapshot ultimately ended up as an urban thriller set within the world of glamour and fashion modelling. When young hairdresser’s assistant Angela (Thornton) is convinced to quit her job by client Madeline (Chantal Countouri), a wealthy and stylish but rather stern and bitchy model, it leads her down a fleeting path of fashion and fame that delivers her a well-paying job posing topless for a two-page advertisement in Cleo magazine (which she has to try to hide from her sure-to-be-horrified family), fending off the lecherous charms of Madeline’s sleazy, older film producer husband Elmer (Robert Bruning), as well as the attentions of her ex-boyfriend Daryl (Vincent Gil), who refuses to believe their relationship is over as he stalks Angela around town in the vehicle of his profession – a Mr. Whippy ice cream truck. Things eventually turn deadly serious when Angela discovers that someone has a disturbing fixation with her, as she stumbles into a photography dark room that has every inch of its wall and floor covered with photos of her cavorting topless on the beach, finally realising she is in too deep and is going to have to fight her way out if she wishes to stay alive, though who knows what other nightmares await her even if she survives…

One of the most unique things about Snapshot, and one of its true strokes of creative imagination, is its use of such a wholesome and reassuring image – that of the friendly neighbourhood Mr. Whippy ice cream van – as an instrument and representation of evil and danger in the film. The pink and white vehicle prowls the suburban backstreets and alleyways like Bruce the shark in Jaws, creating a visual which is both ludicrous yet strangely disturbing, almost as if the juxtaposition is causing the subconscious to play havoc with childhood memory.  

Originally developed with Richard Franklin in mind, Snapshot was the first feature to be directed by Sydney born Simon Wincer, who had developed his filmmaking chops by directing episodes of such seminal home-grown television shows as Matlock Police, Division 4, Homicide, The Sullivans, Chopper Squad and Prisoner (known as Prisoner: Cell Block H outside of Australia). Wincer’s small screen experience serves him well in Snapshot, keeping the film’s structure compact and tight and the plot moving at a decent pace. His subsequent career has seen him directing a diverse range of features like Harlequin (1980, another Ginnane production), Phar Lap (1983), the sci-fi adventure D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), the bizarre actioner Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991), the adaptation of the popular comic book The Phantom (1996) and the belated sequel Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001), though his biggest commercial success by far came in the form of the popular family adventure film Free Willy (1993).

Performance wise, it is Sigrid Thornton who clearly dominates the film, the then twenty-year-old garnering a Best Actress nomination at the Australian Film Awards for her role, and amply demonstrating the talents that made her such a popular and familiar presence in Australian films, and on television, over the ensuing decades (her recent roles including an award-winning turn as Judy Garland in the 2015 miniseries Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door). Having made her debut in the 1977 coming-of-age favourite The FJ Holden, Thornton brings a real sense of innocence and naïveté to her role as Angela, as well as being able to imbue her character with an emerging inner strength which her situation is forcing her to develop quick smart (reportedly, Thornton was cast a mere two days before shooting on the film began, after the original actress backed out, making Thornton’s ability to channel her role so well in such a short time all the more impressive) .

Thornton also creates a great onscreen chemistry with her female co-star Chantal Contouri, the Greek-born actress who, with her exotic European looks and dark European complexion, is a perfect choice to play the slightly older Madeline, strutting around in fashionable (for the time) outfits such as tight white pants with a white macramé top as she takes Angela under her protective – yet predatory – wing, taking her to all the hot night spots and introducing her to the people that will take her to the top of the fashion heap. Contouri would also prove excellent in her other film for Ginnane, the modern urban vampire film Thirst, which was released later in 1979.

Fans of Mad Max (1979) will enjoy seeing Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in George Miller’s landmark Australian film (as well as Toad in Sandy Harbutt’s 1974 biker classic Stone), turn up in Snapshot as Linsey, the eccentric photographer who provides Angela with her first modelling job, as well as a place to stay in his communal home studio when she is kicked out of her family home. When we first meet Linsey, he is hunched over in his studio taking a photo of a dead mouse for an exhibition on death, carefully grooming the rodent’s corpse with a toothpick so he can get the look just right. It’s certainly a different role to what the big, burly actor was best known for, and it’s interesting to watch him playing against type.

Adding an oddball element to the casting of Snapshot is Denise Drysdale, who has a supporting role as Lily, one of the women living at Linsey’s pad. Though Drysdale had previously done some acting on television cop shows, by the late-seventies she was more known as a television and radio personality, obtaining the nickname ‘Ding Dong’ because of her ditzy personality and co-hosting shows with the likes of Graham Kennedy, Ernie Sigley and Daryl Somers.

Another strange but interesting casting choice is Vincent Gil as Daryl, Angela’s obsessed ex-boyfriend. Forty at the time of filming Snapshot, Gil was twice the age of the baby-faced Thornton, and with his gruff features and bald spot, comes across more like her father than a past suitor. “We had two screws, love had nothing to do with it!”, Angela tells Daryl when he tries to convince her that they belong together. Perhaps best known for his role as Nightrider in Mad Max, and later as Ruben in John Hillcoat’s confronting Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (1988) and the cult low-budget horror Body Melt (1993), Gil’s talents are somewhat underused in Snapshot, and his character is dangled in front of the audience as an obvious red herring, but the actor’s charisma still manages to make his performance enjoyable to watch.

Providing a touch of class to the cast is Julia Blake, who is terrific as Angela’s stern, repressed and deceitful mother, bringing a lot of depth and nuance to her character in the brief screen time she is given. And Robert Bruning conveys a palpable degree of sleaze as the creepy film producer Elmer (ironically, Bruning did also have a career as a prolific television producer as well as actor). A further element of strange surrealism is injected into Snapshot via the casting of cabaret artist Bob Brown, who appears on stage in several of the scenes which take place inside Juliana’s nightclub, performing as a different eccentric character each time, usually dressed as a rugged macho male yet wearing lipstick, eyeliner and rogue, creating a bizarre gender-bending image.

The screenplay for Snapshot was penned (reportedly in only four days) by the late Everett De Roche, an American writer who moved to Australia in 1968 and would become one of the most prominent figures in the ‘Ozploitation’ scene of the late-70s and early-80s, turning out the scripts for such key local genre films as Patrick (1978), Long Weekend (1978), Harlequin (1980), Roadgames (1981), Razorback (1984) and Fortress (1985). An impressive resume to be sure, and one that also includes numerous episodes of classic Australian television crime shows of the seventies like Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police. In Snapshot, De Roche uses the ploy of starting the story at the climax, opening with the aftermath of a fire and the discovery of a badly charred body inside, as Madeline stands outside screaming for Angela while the police and fire department go to work in the midst of all the chaos. The film then takes us back to the beginning of the story, depicting the lead-up to the tragic fire and making us take the journey wondering if that will indeed be Angela burned to a crisp by the time the ending arrives. Of course, even once the mystery is revealed, De Roche still springs a couple of surprises in the film’s final few minutes, effectively creating a number of false endings before the credits actually role. Sharing the screenplay credit with Everett De Roche is his wife Chris, though it’s unsure how much input she actually had in the writing of the script, and they did not share any other film writing credits (according to an interview with De Roche in the Feb/March 1980 issue of Cinema Papers, he utilized his wife primarily as a sounding board for developing female characters).    

Providing the soundtrack for Snapshot is Brian May, a regular Ginnane collaborator and the obvious go-to composer for Australian genre films of this period. Snapshot is not one of May’s most original or memorable scores (though there is lovely opening piano theme, which starts off soft and classical before some dour strings and freaky electric guitar kicks in), but the soundtrack is beefed-up somewhat by the inclusion of the song “Angela”, written and performed by the Melbourne pop band Sherbet, who were an Australian music phenomenon earlier in the decade but by late-1979 had well and truly peaked and were on the slide. “Angela” only managed to reach a measly #85 in the Australian charts, a far cry from their earlier #1 hits like “Summer Love” and “Howzat”.

A cool retrospective aspect of Snapshot is that it provides a nice, um, snapshot of Melbourne at the time, all wonderfully captured in Panavision by cinematographer Vincent Monton. Orange trams, red rattler trains, the old W.S. Flour Mill in Kensingston, the streets of Carlton, Juliana’s nightclub (in the basement of the Hilton Hotel), rickety wooden train station overpath fences…it all helps create a visual time capsule of the era that should bring something of a nostalgic pang to anyone who lived through the period (as I did, as a young CBC St. Kilda schoolboy). And film buffs will enjoy seeing the posters for movies like Terrance Malick’s Badlands (1973), Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977) and Ginnane’s own Fantasm (1976) hanging on the walls in Elmer’s film production office.

With a budget often reported in the $250,000 – $300,000 range (a fair bit less than Ginnane’s previous feature, Patrick), Snapshot was not a success at the local box-office upon its release, only lasting a couple of weeks in major markets like Melbourne and Sydney (Cinema Papers reported the film only taking in a meagre $2,358 during its first week in Melbourne). The film performed slightly better overseas (particularly in Scandinavia), which thanks to the Australian dollar being so much stronger than American currency at the time, helped it to recoup its production costs. It was also invited to screen at a number of international film festivals, which helped give the movie some prestige to counter its lukewarm commercial success.  

To coincide with the release of Snapshot, Sun Books (a small Melbourne-based company) published a paperback novelization tie-in of the film, written by Keith Hetherington, a prolific author with over 600 digest western novels to his credit, as well as a number of scripts for episodic television cops shows like Division 4, Matlock Police and Homicide (for which he earned a number of Logie Awards). Hetherington also authored the paperback tie-in for the 1980 Australian nuclear thriller The Chain Reaction.

When Snapshot made its way to the USA in 1980 (in a print trimmed of few sequences), distributors slapped it with the hilariously misleading title of The Day After Halloween, in a clear attempt to mislead audiences into thinking it was some kind of follow-up to John Carpenter’s genre-defining classic Halloween (1978). Audiences were not fooled, though by the time they realised the deception they had already kissed their money goodbye. The film was also released in some US territories as One More Minute. Brian May’s soundtrack was also released in the US in 1980 (under The Day After Halloween title) by Citadel Records, with a coloured vinyl pressing being issued by Australian label OXMIQ for Record Store Day in 2015.

Though Snapshot may not be as instantly gratifying or contain as many exploitation thrills as Antony I. Ginnane’s other genre productions from this period, it still manages to touch on issues that were considered somewhat taboo in mainstream cinema at the time (such as the predatory lesbian tendencies of the Madeline character), it refreshingly breaks with tradition by not having the usual male lead, and it delivers a well-acted and overall entertaining narrative that also serves as a morality tale about the perceived decadence of the fashion photography industry, and the pitfalls of instant fame and success.  

About John Harrison

John Harrison is a freelance writer and film historian based in Melbourne, Australia. His previous books include Blood on the Windscreen (an examination of the gory driver education films of the 1950s – 70s) and Hip Pocket Sleaze: The Lurid World of Vintage Adult Paperbacks. Apart from contributing regularly for publications like Weng’s Chop and Monster!, Harrison is currently working on two books, Wildcat! The Films of Marjoe Gortner and Rollin’ with the Punches, the filmography of Hollywood stuntwoman and actress Marneen Fields (whom he married in Las Vegas in 2016).

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