CODA UK VHS artwork
four stars   
"When the music stops the nightmare begins ..."

directed by: Craig Lahiff
starring: Penny Cook, Arna-Maria Winchester, Liddy Clark, Olivia Hamnett, Patrick Frost, Vivienne Greaves, Bob Newman, Adrian Shirley, Hedley Cullen, John Stoneham Sr., David Sadler, Celine Griffen, Michael Norman

choice dialogue:

"Tons of character - including a resident psychopath!"

- Sally justifies moving apartments.

slash with panache?

[review by JA Kerswell]

Just when you think you've seen every great 80s slasher movie there's still always a gem out there, ripe for rediscovery. Australia's CODA is one such example; a film that is much better than it has any right to be considering the year it was made and considering it was dumped to TV and video rather than get its planned theatrical release.

  Anyone who has seen HALLOWEEN II (1981) might get a sense of deja-vu watching the jacuzzi scene in CODA.

Kate (Penny Cook) is a mature student attending a music college. Her next door neighbour, Anna (Vivienne Greaves), is attacked one night in her digs and is pushed through her bedroom window to the ground below. Her neighbours call the police and a man attending to Anna's unconscious body flees when the authorities turn up. They give chase after who they believe to be the attacker.

Kate is joined by her and Anna's lecturer, Dr Steiner (Arna-Maria Winchester), who had dropped her off that evening after class. Both are quizzed by the police, led by Detective Sergeant Turner (Olivia Hamnett). They initially link the attack to a recent spate of rapes on campus. Then Kate recognises a police drawing of the suspect as her ex-husband Mike (Patrick Frost). However, he professes his innocence when he drops by her apartment and vows to go to the hospital to see Anna to get her to clear his name. However, at the hospital someone kills Anna after distracting the staff by setting off the alarm. Mike sees a mysterious figure dressed in black and sets off in pursuit through the hospital corridors, only to be grappled by the police who are now convinced that he came back to finish the job.

Now in custody, Mike tells Kate that Anna was grasping a key he believes holds the secret to the identity of the real killer. During his initial escape from the police he dropped it down a drain and begs Kate to go look for it to help clear him. She agrees, but soon realises that she has unwittingly now made herself the main focus of the killer ...

  Kate (Penny Cook) is not a stereotypical slasher movie heroine.

CODA is a curious mix of sophisticated thriller (the director cited Hitchcock and DePalma as the main inspiration), slasher movie thrills and Nancy Drew type sleuthing. John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978) (and its 1981 sequel) are liberally borrowed from. The killer's creepy, white  wax effigy mask is immediately comparable to Michael Myers (evident in several scenes that apparently homage Carpenter's film and its followup: most notably Kate seeing the killer briefly standing amongst flapping laundry on a washing line and a murder attempt in a jacuzzi). The bravura showdown at the end of the film, which includes an extended cat and mouse chase sequence at the college's library, has the killer being stabbed in the neck with a spike and then miraculously reviving and sitting up in the background.

Another obvious influence is the Italian giallo - especially those of Dario Argento. The film revolves around a classical music college, so it is no surprise that it features so heavily. However, the way the classical music is often juxtaposed with suspenseful scenes is pure Argento - as is the near fetishism of keys and running water. In one scene, Kate and her friend Sally attempt to snare the killer at the opera - only to find the tables turned when they become the prey in yet another great suspense scene. The killer also wears black leather gloves in a nod to the film's earlier Italian cousins. Returning to HALLOWEEN, the classical mix is complimented by a driving synth score in some scenes.

For a movie made in 1987 it is surprisingly cheese free - there are no deeley-boppers nor Lycra in sight. The killer is silent (and actually scary in places) - no Freddy-style wisecracks here. As a frumpy divorcee, the film's ostensible heroine couldn't be further from the stereotypical slasher movie victim/final girl. However, her down-to-earth Aussie persona is perhaps a tonic to some of the subgenre's more shrill characters. Interestingly, all of the major parts of the film are played by women.

Whilst there is relatively little on screen blood (a brutal killing with a sword a notable exception), and a small bodycount, it is the suspense that CODA excels at. Even during the low key middle section the film didn't lose my attention once - although some might lose patience with it. However, it is definitely worth persevering for the excellent last 20 minutes.

  The killer in CODA has been taking laundry tips from a certain Mr Myers ..

If there is a downside it would have to be the fairly predictable (to me at least) identity of the killer - which appears to have been partially lifted from another early 80s slasher. There might also be some dubious sexual politics at play here. It is also a real shame that a film this beautifully shot and composed (again the fluid camerawork is reminiscent of Argento at his height) has yet to see a worthy release. The VHS copy I saw was full screen and mired by an overly dark transfer (the curse of many a slasher movie from the time). For a film that plays with light and shadows to tease its killer (again like Carpenter's film) this is a real hindrance, although not a fatal one. There is still much here to enjoy. As Australian slashers go, this is thankfully much more NEXT OF KIN (1982) than THE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN (1979).

Director Craig Lahiff made a number of other thrillers, but sadly none of them within the subgenre. He passed away in 2014. Penny Cook went on to do the Aboriginal curse horror movie THE DREAMING the next year (along with Patrick Frost). Frost went onto appear in the millennium Aussie slasher CUT (2000). Arna-Maria Winchester was in the fun disaster/conspiracy movie THE CHAIN REACTION (1980), she also played the evil mother of a girl raised by dingos in the bizarre comedy PANDEMONIUM (also 1987). English actress Olivia Hamnett appeared as Richard Chamberlain's wife in Peter Weir's esoteric disaster movie THE LAST WAVE (1977). She is possibly best remembered as the psycho doctor inmate in cult soap PRISONER CELL BLOCK H.

Albeit a slight curio with flaws, CODA is a real find and well worth tracking down.


BODYCOUNT 5   bodycount!   female:3 / male:2

       1) Female has life support turned off
       2) Female stabbed with sword
       3) Male body seen
       4) Male killed offscreen
       5) Female falls out window and drowned