‘Oh, Sid, I’d have thought you’d have had enough of caves.’
‘Hell hath no fury like nine cornered kids.’ In 1972, some Australian assholes were inspired by the climax of Dirty Harry to kidnap and hold for ransom a schoolteacher and an entire class – one of them, John Eastwood, escaped from prison and tried it again in 1977. This in turn inspired a novel by Gabrielle Lord which was adapted by Everett DeRoche (who wrote a run of significant Down Under horror/suspense items from Long Weekend to Razorback) for this HBO TV movie (a theatrical in its home territory, I assume), directed by Arch Nicholson (who also made the first entry in the Aussie killer croc cycle, Dark Age). Because of the TV movie status, I wasn’t expecting something as tough as this: it’s tactful about some things (implied nudity) but surprisingly frank in other ways (a minor but key plot-point is the oldest girl in class getting her period at the most inconvenient time). Suspenseful and involving, it’s a thoroughly solid, artful exploitation movie – and I bet kids loved it.
In an unfussy, unsentimental opening, Sally Jones (Rachel Ward) exerts control over a mixed-age class of nine in a one-room outback schoolhouse, only for four masked men – Father Christmas (Peter Hehir), Dabby Duck (Vernon Wells), Pussy Cat (David Bradshaw) and Mac the Mouse (Roger Stephen) – to burst in with shotguns and hustle them all into a van, driving the hostages out into the wilderness and dumping them in a cave, sealed with a boulder. The teacher and the kids refuse to sit still for all this, and explore the cave, finding an underwater exit, then tramp through the countryside – as pregnant with menace as in most De Roche movies – to a farm, which is (of course) where the gang have holed up. The situation escalates, an innocent old couple get gorily shotgunned and a gang member is murdered when he tries to quit. Know how tough these bastards are? Vernon Wells, the scumbo of Mad Max 2 and Commando, is the one who thinks they’re going too far. The concerned teacher decides it’s all right for the kids to fight back, returning to the caves to hole up, going into Lord of the Flies mode as they rig up booby traps and respond to appalling threats (the surviving goons start making mocking sexual threats about the teacher and the eldest girl) with convincing violence. In a Deliverance-ish coda, the cops aren’t satisfied that the mutilation of the dead kidnappers is all down to animals but Miss Jones resists questioning – and there’s a human heart in a jar amid the art materials.
The Chipping Norton-born Ward began in films as a lovely but wooden presence, showing her cheekbones in slashers like Terror Eyes and The Campsite Massacre, but had a sudden talent spurt as an actress in the ‘80s, never becoming a major star but doing great work in noirs like Against All Odds and After Dark, My Sweet: I think this is the best performance I’ve seen from her – her moment of breakdown as a small kid asks just one too many question about what’s going to happen is affecting, and she’s credible as a woman so used to herding cats as a primary school teacher that she can cope with almost any appalling incident and yet remains uncannily in tune with the momentary fears and embarrassments of her pupils. She also does great physical work, including a spell underwater in her underwear and dodging rocks on a mountainside. All the kids, from the eldest (Rebecca Rigg) to the tiddlers, are convincing, showing a savage streak in class even before they turn themselves into miniature guerrillas. It’s a well thought-through movie, too: early on, one kid sneaks away for help, but the gang notice he’s missing when someone else takes his line in a song sung by the class; the lumpy boy no one really likes becomes a class hero when, as a smoker, he’s the one in the cave with matches; a lad is most upset by the kidnap because it means he’s missing Gilligan’s Island.