[review by JA Kerswell]
There are some pretty obscure early 80s Australian and New Zealand slasher movies, but EARLY FROST may just be the most obscure of them all. Never released theatrically in its home country (or anywhere else for that matter), to date this is the only Australian feature released without a director’s credit (and, arguably, a cohesive plot). It does, however, boast death by a macrame/harpoon boobytrap and is haunted by rumours of real-life curse …
Middle-aged women, in a West Sydney suburb, are turning up dead in their swimming pools from what appears to have been a naturally occurring stroke. The only thing these women have in common is that they appear together in a seemingly random group photo. A private detective (Guy Doleman), who had been working for one of the deceased women on a divorce case, starts to believe that something of a murderous nature is afoot and takes it upon himself to warn the other women in the photo that they may be in danger.
One of these women Val (Diana McLean), is an unhappy mother who is living with her two sons, Peter (Jon Blake) and Joey (Daniel Cumerford) - who seemingly hate her. Their dysfunctional household is partly explained by a flashback that shows Val killing their father by causing him to drown after throwing a beer can at his head (!). Val, who is now unhappily involved with a married man, Paul (Kit Taylor - who was in the similarly little seen Australian slasher INNOCENT PREY (1984)), confides in her best friend Pat (Peg Prentice) that she suspects that one of her sons might be trying to kill her and worries that they may also be behind the series of faked drownings. Her fears appear to come true after she drunkenly returns home one night and is electrocuted (but inexplicably survives) a boobytrapped fusebox. The two friends also witness the death of a store assistant who falls from a ladder through a glass table after a mysterious heavy breathing figure presumably tries to take them out after wheeling a trolley at them (possibly not the deadliest weapon but, then again, tell that to the deceased shop assistant).
Pat tries to help Val get her life back on track and repair the relationship with her sons. Meanwhile, her own oddball teenage son, David (David Franklin), is indulging in a macabre hobby - collecting clippings in his scrapbook from the local newspaper detailing all the recent deaths. The killer, acting like an Antipodean Michael Myers (there isn’t a window he or she won’t stand outside at night time and sound like an advanced asthmatic), continues to bump off the local housewife population. Will the private investigator work out who it is before Pat and Val find themselves face-down in a swimming pool … ?
Sydney’s outer suburban sprawl hasn’t featured in many horror films. The dark deeds and head-scratching plot lines are an effective counterbalance to its beige conformity. However, to say the plot in EARLY FROST is muddled is something of an understatement. The main storyline involving the murders of middle-aged women that appear in a photograph ultimately goes nowhere and one major character - who is at first set up to be the protagonist - vanishes entirely from the last third of the film. We see at one point the killer administering a concoction via a needle that mimics a stroke in the murdered women, but it is never explained why this is happening. It really is impossible to spoil the film because it never actually answers who is doing the killing (or, indeed, why) - and ends with a coda suggesting whoever was responsible is still out there. At one point it seems that the culprit is Val’s youngest son, who presumably has been prowling the area as a heavy breathing phantom and is perhaps the only 14 year old with knowledge of advanced botany, incendiary devices, electrical wiring and how to rig a spear gun up with macrame! Again, not really a spoiler because - as Val says at one point: “What the bloody hell’s going on here?”
Whilst we may never know who the real culprit was it seems bloody likely that a troubled production was the culprit for the film’s terminal incoherence. Reportedly the original director (rumoured to be New Zealander Brian McDuffie) took his name off the project because he thought the film was a disaster - or, according to producer David Hannay, he was “removed”. Some reports say that McDuffie was sacked on the day of the wrap party (!). Hannay had originally courted Ozploitation legend Brian Trenchard-Smith to direct, but he had to pass due to previous commitments (TURKEY SHOOT was released in 1982). Hannay said that he co-producer Geoff Brown: “… did what we could to fix the picture.”
The original script for EARLY FROST actually dates back to 1974 and was penned by actress Terry O’Connor. The script impressed Hannay so much he spent seven years amassing funding. The film was made under the working title SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (or simply SOMETHING WICKED) (but was changed to avoid confusion with the Disney film of the same name released in 1983). It was lensed between June and August 1981 in and around Blacktown (a suburb in the City of Blacktown, in Greater Western Sydney, in the state of New South Wales, Australia). It was a co-production with Filmco Limited; who had been behind the same year’s rather more accomplished slasher NEXT OF KIN. After a few TV showings internationally, EARLY FROST was belatedly released to video in its native Australia in 1988 (although it was released in the UK on video in June 1983). Many of the cast had appeared in the lurid Blacktown lensed Australian soap NUMBER 96 (1972-1977) about the residents of a Sydney apartment block - which boasted “Initial storylines focused on adultery, drug use, frigidity, rape, gossip, homosexuality, marriage problems.”
In latter years EARLY FROST attracted some notoriety as a ‘cursed’ movie after the untimely deaths of two of its youngest - and most talented - actors. Jon Blake - who played Val’s oldest son - had his burgeoning acting career cut short when he was seriously injured in a car accident in 1986. He remained in a coma until his death in 2011. Daniel Cumerford - who played his younger brother Joey - also died tragically young at just 19 years of age, when he was accidentally hit and killed by a subway train on Christmas Eve 1985. He had been suffering from schizophrenia.
After the international success of PATRICK (1978), the Australian film industry realised that there was money to be made from commercial projects and went out of their way to court international markets. This was further boosted by the huge success of post-apocalyptic action thriller MAD MAX (1979). The lurid thriller SNAPSHOT (also 1979) was repackaged for North American cinema-goers as a quasi sequel to John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) despite having nothing to do with it - and having only the most tenuous links to the subgenre. Australian horror and exploitation cinema has its own flavour and is often wonderfully unique. Perhaps oddly, whilst obviously trying to ape the slasher movie in the early 1980s, Australian film makers added elements that often sabotaged their commercial prospects. Quite who thought a series of bloodless poisonings of middle-aged housewives would tickle the same audiences as that of FRIDAY THE 13TH is anyone’s guess. For much of its running time, EARLY FROST could have easily played daytime TV - and then a severed head is thrown into the mix. Its muddled result improbably explained by a script that pre-dated the slasher craze which was awkwardly - and pretty half-heartedly - retro-fitted to ape then popular trends.
EARLY FROST is a mess, but is curiously compelling for those brave - or masochistic - enough to take a punt.
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female: 3 / male: 5
2) Male dies in fall
3) Female given lethal injection
4) Male hit on head with beer can and drowns
5) Male burns to death in car
6) Male decapitated (off-screen)
7) Male shot with speargun
8) Female dies of a stroke