Turkey Shoot / Escape 2000 / Blood Camp Thatcher (1981/1983) -***
If we adjust for the big fish/small pond effect inherent to the Australian movie industry, then Turkey Shoot represents a teaming of titans. We’ve already met director Brian Trenchard-Smith in the context of his ongoing project to make a full-fledged movie star out of stuntman Grant Page, so now let’s talk for a bit about Turkey Shoot’s producer, Anthony Ginnane. It’s tempting to call Ginnane the Roger Corman of Australia, but that would be somewhat misleading. Unlike Corman, Ginnane was never a director. Right from the beginning, his domain was strictly on the business side of things. But although Ginnane’s career therefore has no parallel to Corman’s American International Pictures period, the two men had very similar 70’s and 80’s. Ginnane ranged widely across the sexploitation, horror, and action genres, while also dabbling a bit in more respectable fare. He had a good eye for other people’s talent, and enough appreciation for artistry to stay out of his writers’ and directors’ ways so long as they were doing profitable-looking work. But most of all, he had a knack for combining sleaze with substance that actually exceeded Corman’s. The typical Tony Ginnane picture was a completely unapologetic exploitation piece, but also an uncommonly intelligent one. Turkey Shoot is not a typical Tony Ginnane picture, however. Rather, this was one of the few cases where he completely lost control of the production, beginning when one of the principal backers abandoned ship, taking roughly a third of the budget with him. The shooting schedule had to be drastically curtailed, and great swaths of the screenplay junked to compensate. The star performers all proved troublesome in a variety of ways, and quickly lost respect for the project. The final result was a total fiasco, “a putrid, puerile piece of crap,” as second-billed actress Lynda Stoner aptly put it. And yet it still remains possible to discern the contours of the much better and cleverer film that Ginnane and Trenchard-Smith set out to make. You just have to look really, really closely.
In the far-flung future of 1995, Australia has fully succumbed to the disease of moralizing, authoritarian conservatism that most of the English-speaking world contracted about fifteen years before. Sexual deviance is now the worst accusation that can be leveled against someone, carrying a sentence of indefinite confinement to a reeducation camp in the countryside. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a revival of the old Roman custom whereby rigged trials for sex crimes are the preferred method for neutralizing enemies of the state who have yet to do anything officially illegal. As we join this story, three such dissidents are on their way to the camp administered by Commandant Charles Thatcher (Michael Craig, from The Fourth Victim and Mysterious Island): Paul Anders (Steve Railsback, of Lifeforce and Trick or Treats), Chris Walters (Olivia Hussey, from Black Christmas and Psycho IV: The Beginning), and Rita Daniels (the aforementioned Lynda Stone).
Thatcher’s camp is pretty much what you’d expect from an institution of its ilk in a movie like this. Ritter (Roger Ward, of Stone and The Chain Reaction) and his guards use torture and violence to terrorize the inmates into submission, and hold the de facto right to rape any female prisoners they fancy as a fringe benefit of their positions. The more tractable prisoners face a routine of forced labor, supposedly on the theory that industriousness will lead to improved social integration. Politically aware hard-cases like Anders and Griff (Bill Young, from Body Melt and The Matrix) have it much worse, since the whole point of their incarceration is to break their will to oppose the government. And every so often, Thatcher gathers all his charges together to witness one of their number receiving some spectacularly grotesque punishment. So basically, what we’ve got here is a 1970’s Nazi atrocity movie with a thin overlay of 1980’s futurism.
Or at any rate, that’s what we have for the first half or so. There’s something else going on behind the scenes at Thatcher’s camp, though, and that’s where the titular turkey shoot (or the titular escape, if you’re watching the film under its old US home video handle) comes in. The government which Thatcher serves is, of course, appallingly hypocritical and corrupt on top of its many totalitarian charms, and no one in public office really cares much to see deviants (let alone dissidents incarcerated on bogus charges of deviance) actually reeducated and reintegrated into society. And if Thatcher’s prisoners are just going to be held until some excuse to kill them arises anyway, then he and his masters might as well have some fun while they’re at it. Periodically, then, Thatcher hosts the government minister to whom he reports (Noel Ferrier, of Alvin Purple and Deathcheaters) and a few of Secretary Mallory’s friends for a weekend hunting party. That’s right— it’s The Most Dangerous Game, Aussie dystopia-style! This time, Mallory is accompanied by depraved femme fatale Jennifer (Carmen Duncan), sadistic yahoo Tito (Michael Petrovich, from Tales that Witness Madness and Neither the Sea nor the Sand), and Tito’s pet mutant, Alph (Steve Rackman, from Howling III: The Marsupials and The Blood of Heroes). The targets the guests select, meanwhile, are inevitably Anders, Walters, and Daniels, together with a weasely little twerp named Dodge (John Ley, of Mad Max and Out of the Body). The ensuing hunt rather prefigures The Running Man, only with one tenth the budget and ten times the energy.
Like I said, you have to look closely to see it, but Turkey Shoot is this close to being something like a Death Race 2000 for the 80’s. Extrapolating lamentable trends in Commonwealth politics to absurdly grotesque conclusions, and piling on the sleaze until there’s nowhere left to put any more, it almost finds the elusive point on the graph where clever satire and stupid farce meet. What went wrong is a complicated issue. To begin with, about half the cast— including all three of the lead players— seem not to have been in on the joke. Perhaps the tone of the script came across differently on the page, or maybe the material that got scrapped to accommodate the abbreviated shooting schedule would have sobered the movie up a little if it had survived to be filmed. Hell, maybe playing for camp was a decision that Brian Trenchard-Smith made on the fly to compensate for all the things that didn’t work out as planned. But whatever the reason, Steve Railsback, Olivia Hussey, and Lynda Stoner especially were under the impression that Turkey Shoot was an altogether more serious undertaking than wound up being the case. Railsback went full Method madman, holding up shooting day after day with bizarre, overwrought strategies for getting into character, and then apparently withdrawing into a boozy sulk as the schlocky realities of the production became ever more obvious. Hussey seemed genuinely shocked to discover that she had signed on for an exploitation movie, at least if we may judge from her reportedly constant griping about the violence and sexual content of her scenes. Also, she was so terrified of Australia’s infamous snakes and spiders that it was a daily battle just to get her out in front of the damn camera whenever Trenchard-Smith was shooting outdoors— which was most of the time. Perhaps it’s only to be expected, then, that she was so frazzled by the end of production that she once almost hacked off Roger Ward’s hands with a machete when she misunderstood the director’s command to “cut!” Ginnane brought at least some of his troubles on himself when it came to Stoner, however. She had a “no nudity” clause in her standard contract, and Ginnane had assured her that at no point would she be asked to take off her clothes— even though he knew full well that the script called for Rita to have nude scenes. Basically, he just left it up to Trenchard-Smith to be the asshole in his stead, which meant one more headache for the already overburdened director. Stoner’s principles came into conflict with the demands of the role again when Rita was supposed to be shown gutting fish together with a bunch of the other inmates. This time, the issue was Stoner’s vegetarianism, of which she took, shall we say, a rather expansive reading. In the end, the gore effects people had to mock up a bucket of rubber and foam-latex fish for her to eviscerate. The actual impact on the schedule and budget can’t have been great, but the squabble over the fish still meant extra expenditure of time and money on a production that was starkly short on both.
Obviously that inadequacy of resources was itself a big limiting factor on Turkey Shoot’s overall quality. When you need an escape-proof prison camp with a high-tech control room, several varieties of futuristic vehicle, and genetically engineered beast-men, but have neither the money to pay for them nor the time to do them right, delightfully ridiculous things are bound to happen. Like your reeducation camp ends up looking like a sad little circle of aluminum sheds on the outside, and a truck stop shower room on the inside. Your control center turns out almost completely innocent of controls. Your advanced military machinery looks like it was rented from the local dealer of landscaping equipment. And only the unnaturally colored contact lenses distinguish your mutant from the most expensive werewolf costume at Halloween Village. The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Trenchard-Smith adopted the tongue-in-cheek tone only after he saw a few days’ worth of rushes, and realized there was no chance of Turkey Shoot being taken seriously in any case. As it is, my favorite moment in the film is one that absolutely revels in its own ludicrousness. Tito, chasing Dodge through the bush in what looks like a baby bulldozer with a machine gun on the roll bar, finally catches up to his prey, and unleashes Alph— who, as we now learn, considers human toes to be a delicacy without peer. I can’t do justice to the scene describing it in words. This kind of enthusiastic tackiness and stupidity you just have to witness for yourself.