Rod Hardy’s 1979 film, Thirst, now re-released by local distributor Glass Doll Films, is commonly referred to as a good example of Ozsploitation cinema, the term given to the wave of Australian low-budget horror, comedy, and action films made after the introduction of the R-rating in 1971. That description and categorisation doesn’t do justice to how good a horror film Thirst is in its own right, not to mention its place in the broader sub-genre of vampire cinema. Thirst opens on a startling image: Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri) awakens, screaming in an open coffin. As she leaps out of the coffin and wanders around what appears to be a sealed crypt we hear two men discuss her reactions, Dr Fraser and Dr Gauss (David Hemmings of Deep Red and Henry Silva, respectively, brought into beef up the film’s international appeal). From their conversation it is apparent Kate is the subject of some sort of observed experiment.
From here, the film jumps back two weeks. Davis appears to have everything in life, a rewarding job as a high-powered fashion executive, a beautiful house and a loving and attentive boyfriend. But disturbing visions plagues her. Unbeknownst to her, she’s also being spied on by a strange male (Robert Thompson, well known to fans of cult Australian film as the comatose patient with telekinesis power in Patrick, which appeared the previous year). He is a functionary of the Australian arm of a transnational vampire cult calling itself ‘the Brotherhood’. The Brotherhood has identified Kate as the descendent of the Baroness Elizabeth Bathory, a real life Hungarian noblewoman and history’s first recorded female serial killer, accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women between 1585 and 1610. Bathory supposedly also exhibited vampiric tendencies, including bathing in her victim’s blood.
The members of the Brotherhood aren’t your typical vampires. Sunlight doesn’t harm them and they only indulge in the traditional vampiric way of drinking blood during important ceremonies, with the use of false fangs. The rest of the time they rely for nourishment on ‘blood cows’, tranquilised, childlike humans, who are, literally, milked for their plasma in an efficient, sterile, high tech facility on the grounds of a large rural estate.
The vampire clan as akin to ruling class corporate entity was an idea ahead of time in the seventies (one possible exception being the underrated 1973 film, Satanic Rites of Dracula in which Christopher Lee plays Dracula as a mysterious property speculator developing a virus fatal to humans). The depiction of the vampire’s blood dairy also pre-figures a concern that would come to dominant the sub-genre in later years: how the undead secure a safe and abundant supply of food. This was evident in films such as Blade (1998) and Daybreakers (2009), and the underrated 1998 British television series Ultraviolet, in which a team of paramilitary police battle modern day vampires whose chief methods of survival include manipulating medical science to survive.
The visions Kate is experiencing are the opening salvo of an elaborate plot by the Brotherhood to reconcile her to her real identity as a vampire and mate her with a particularly creepy vampire nobleman, Mr Hodge (Max Phipps). As part of their indoctrination, the Brotherhood whisks Kate off to their estate. In the process of breaking down Kate’s resistance – and revulsion – to her vampiric heritage, she becomes the centre of a conflict between the Brotherhood’s rival scientists: Mrs Barker (Shirley Cameron), who believes the only way to get Kate to accept she is a vampire is to break her will through the application of increasingly lurid and violent hallucinations; and Dr Fraser who wants to gently seduce her into the fold. This rivalry runs parallel with the other major conflict in Thirst: what will win out, Kate’s human conditioning or her emerging vampire tendencies?
As well as being ahead of its time, Thirst borrows from the healthy lineage of vampire cinema in the late sixties and seventies, as well as horror cinema more generally. The Brotherhood’s rural estate (the former artists’ colony of Montsalvat in the Melbourne suburb of Eltham) looks like it could be the setting of one of Hammer’s vampire films. A scene in which Kate takes a shower and blood instead of water gushes from the faucet owes a debt to Carrie (1976) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960). But the biggest influence on Thirst would appear to be the canon of stylish, erotic, vampire films that appeared in the seventies; Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Female Vampire (1973), and on the other side of the Atlantic, Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (1971). These fused art house sensibilities and soft-core porn aesthetics with horror tropes and sexual experimentation, the latter represented in the clash between young couples, brimming with countercultural energy, unwittingly coming under the sway of older, sexually sophisticated female vampires.
Thirst certainly contains elements of action cinema and high camp characteristic of Ozploitation. These include a chase sequence in which one of the vampire scientists is fried on overhanging electric wires, and a surreal scene in which a group of visiting overseas vampires are shepherded through the milking facility, led by a monotone voiced tour guide who tells them how the farm was established in 1939 due to concerns over the quality of the blood supply. These touches aside, Thirst’s depiction of Kate’s battle with vampirism, the strong implication, present in a lot of seventies vampire cinema, that drinking blood is sexually and morally liberating, the heavy emphasis on the fine line between reality and fantasy, played out in the bizarre and horrific psychological mind games inflicted on Kate, elevate the story, giving it a sophisticated and complex tone. The film also benefits from a wonderful score by the late Brian May, who lent his talents to numerous Australian genre films in the seventies and eighties.
The Internet has rendered information about even the most esoteric cult flick available with a couple of key strikes. Along with decreasing production costs, this has seen the advent of numerous distributors cranking out remastered versions of cult cinema, including several in Australia. Glass Doll Films is to be congratulated not only for helping Thirst find a new audience but also for doing what some local outfits have not, going the distance to include great extras. These include original TV spots and trailers, an audio commentary with Ron Hardy and producer Anthony I Ginnane, the latter of whom was involved in numerous Ozsploitation movies, and a fascinating series of extended interviews, parts of which originally appeared in Mark Hartley’s 2008 documentary, Not Quite Hollywood.