Friday, February 4, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

Pt. 2 of 6 reviews from the OZPLOITATION VOLUME 3 (6-Disc Set)

LABEL: Umbrella Entertainment
REGION: Region 0 PAL
RATING: M (R equivalent)
DIRECTOR: Philippe Moira
CAST: Dennis Hopper, Dennis Gulpilil, Frank Thring, Jack Thompson

PLOT: Set in gold rush-era Victoria, and based on a true story, this violent, rollicking portrayal of infamous Irish outlaw Dan Morgan (a bravura performance from an intense Dennis Hopper Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now) is a classic of Australian 70s cinema renaissance. A prospector who turns to crime and opium after failing at gold mining, Dan Morgan spends six brutal years in prison before terrorising country Victoria with a young Aboriginal, David Gulpilil (Walkabout, The Tracker). Having escaped into NSW, the bushranger and his accomplice easily dodge the police and mercilessly intimidate the wealthy land owners; but wracked by madness and a lust to avenge an earlier attack from an irate squatter, the notorious Mad Dog makes a perilous journey back into Victoria. Combining an all-star Australian cast, including Jack Thompson, Bill Hunter and John Hargreaves, with a brilliant Dennis Hopper who called the role one of his great life experiences - director Philippe Mora (Communion) creates one of the great period action dramas.

FILM: I know fuck all about Australia and it's colorful history other than it was claimed by Britain as a colony in 1770 and primarily settled through penal transportation by which a country transports it criminal populace to another continent. In this instance it's England sending it's outlaws to the continent of Australia. I've supplemented my knowledge of Australia with tidbits I've gleaned from MAD MAX (1979) which led me to the assumption that it was a scorching wasteland populated by roving gangs of biker punk and rape-y men in souped-up muscle car death machines. Obviously my perception of Australia is colored more by the high-octane ozploitation films more so than surreal grandeur of Peter Weir's THE PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975). Mad Dog Morgan is a film that's been on my to-see list for quite some time and was recently further fueled by the NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION (2008) documentary, a superbly entertaining doc covering the the madcap ozploitation genre. Having recently acquired OZPLOITATION VOL. 3 6-disc set from Umbrella Entertainment I was pleased to find the film on the set along side another film I've long sought out, the Aussie exploitation shocker PATRICK (1978).

The film tells the true tale of the notorious Irish immigrant Daniel "Mad Dog" Morgan who was a "bushranger" (that's Aussie speak for outlaw) in the mid-1800's whom migrated to Australia during the gold rush. The film is not excessively gruesome by today's standards but one of the earliest scenes features Morgan at an opium den in a Chinese encampment when the place is raided.  The attackers kill nearly everyone and burn the village to the ground, the violence is shocking and includes a splattery headshot. Morgan just barely makes it out alive. Shortly thereafter Morgan falls on desperate times and resorts to some clumsy highway robbery ending in him being sentenced to prison where he endures rape and a vicious branding with a hot iron, you know the usual prison stuff. Hopper with a thick Irish brogue pleads for help during the rape and the desperation in his voice made me wince, it's harsh stuff. Released after six years for good behavior he immediately begins his life of crime anew swearing vengeance against the corrupt colonial government. This time he aligns himself with an Aborigine tracker named Billy played by David Gulpilil (Peter Weir's THE LAST WAVE) who saves his life. The relationship between the two is fantastic and their camaraderie is the highlight of the film for me as Billy nurses him to health and helps him build his strength back up. The two outlaws become the torment of the wealthy landowners and are seen as Robin Hood type figures by the locals and quickly draw a bounty on their heads leading to Morgan shooting and killing two officers of the law in pursuit of him.

Morgan's anti-hero status in Australia seems a natural fit for Hopper who at the time was a bit of a loose-nut in Hollywood himself during what is known as his "lost years".  Crazy though Morgan may be Hopper portrays the Irishman as fair and just in his own way , sympathetic and haunted by personal demons and insanity. This may be my favorite performance from Hopper, it's right up there with Frank Booth from BLUE VELVET (1986). The film is definitely pushing the sympathetic anti-hero status of the outlaw. The narrative style is a fragmentary assembly of highlights from Morgan's life, it doesn't flow well to be honest, but the episodic nature of the film paints an overall portrait that works and the ending of the film packs a powerful wallop as Morgan is gunned down thus cementing his legendary folkloric status. One of the last lines of the film comes from Superintendent  Cobahn played by the venerable Frank Thring (MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME) who says to the mortician as Morgan lays there on a slab "By all means, off with his head... and don't forget the scrotum" which he has claimed for his own tobacco pouch. Thring is perfectly cast as the sleazy as the epitome of British colonial rule.
 The film is visually striking and Australia's natural beauty is on full display throughout. Great locations and set-pieces keep you in the period from start to finish. Mora's documentarian background helps maintain a stark realism to the film with the exception of a surreal nightmare sequence that's brief but fantastic. The film is just immensely watchable and deserves a wider audience. It shares a lot in common with American western films; the anti-hero aspect, the rugged setting, indigenous people and the gold rush. I think Mora really gives us a what if Peckinpah made an Australian western here and Hopper's performance is outstanding.  DVD: Mad Dog Morgan is presented in a 16:9 2.35:1 aspect ratio with  2.0 Dolby Digital audio. The transfer comes from a restored print from National Film and Sound Archive and Mike Molloy's cinematography looks great, the black levels are nice and deep and the Australian panoramas are exquisite. The stereo audio is adequate and the filmscore and dialogue were crisp and clear. To my knowledge the only region 1 edition was a Troma release that was cropped and cut so I'm pleased to have this region 0 Director's Cut  from Umbrella Entertainment. This edition is loaded with bonus content beginning with a great commentary from Mora who delivers a ton of colorful anecdotes throughout plus his experiences working with notoriously difficult Dennis Hopper. The To Shoot a Mad Dog (23:37) featurette is also highly recommended. A behind-the-scenes look at the film narrated by Mora with on-set interviews with Hopper and some thrilling footage of legendary Aussie stuntman Grant Page shooting the "man-on-fire" stunt that appears in a hallucinatory dream sequence in the film. There are several times during the featurette that you bare witness to Hopper's eccentric behavior.  That's Our Mad Dog - A Conversation with Dennis Hopper and Philippe Mora (27:47) is a 2008 sit down interview with Hopper and Mora who seem to not have seen each other since the filming. It's great to see the late hopper looking back at the film as the two reminisce. Rounding out the special features a Radio Interview with Philippe Mora (14:22), Mad Dog Morgan Film Excerpts (7:04), Photo Gallery, Mad Dog Morgan Script (DVD-Rom), Mad Dog Morgan Program (DVD-Rom) and a collection of Umbrella Entertainment trailers. Of the limited editions of this title out there this director's cut of the film is easily the most definitive version available. I would love to see this make the jump to Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.

- To Shoot a Mad Dog: Making of Mad Dog Morgan documentary (23:37)
- Dennis Hopper interviewed by Philippe Mora (27:48)

- Audio Commentary by Director Philippe Mora (98:44)
- Radio Interview from 1976. Philippe Mora talks about Mad Dog Morgan (14:23)
- Mad Dog Morgan script PDF
- Mad Dog Morgan programme - PDF
- Stills Gallery (63 images)
- Mad Dog Morgan Film Excerpts x 16 (7:35)
- Umbrella Entertainment Trailers: Picnic at Hanging Rock (4:42), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (2:25). Robbery Under Arms (1:32) and Jessica (2:38)

VERDICT: Mad Dog Morgan is a stirring watch. Hopper's performance is a touching, often brutal,  portrait of a disturbed man pushed to his limits and it's a gritty piece of Australian western cinema. On top of that the the film is ideally presented with great picture qaulity and a wealth of bonus content. Highly recommended.
 ****(4 out of 5 stars)

This is pt. 2  of six reviews forthcoming from UMBRELLA ENTERTAINMENT's OZPLOITATION VOL. 3. It's chock full of Aussie Ozploitation goodness featuring some of the most madcap and erotic exploitation films from the land down under. Prepare yourself for reviews of the following films to come your way in short order. Listed below are the other six films on the set. Up next for review: Barry Humphries in LES PATTERSON SAVES THE WORLD (1987).

THE ABC OF LOVE AND SEX (1977) A witty look between the sheets at modern sex and love – 1978 style! Not only the ultimate guide to getting it up down under – it’s the holy grail of true-blue retro skinema!


At Last! The Australia you've always wanted to see - but until now have never DARED! A kinky collection of 37 unusual and titillating stories
BARRY McKENZIE HOLDS HIS OWN (1974) Excitement brews and Fosters flows as Bazza sets out to rescue the Dame-to-be in distress from the clutches of Erich Count Plasma (Donald Pleasence), the sinister head of the Transylvanian Tourist Commission. Can Bazza pull it off?
PATRICK (1978) In room 15 of the mysterious Roget clinic lies a young comatose murderer named PATRICK. His doctor thinks he's nothing more than 170 pounds of limp meat hanging off a comatose brain, but a young nurse, Kathy (Susan Penhaligon from THE UNCANNY), knows very differently. Patrick has burgeoning psychic powers and a crush on Kathy - and his affection is about to turn into a deadly and bloody obsession!

LES PATTERSON SAVES THE WORLD (1987) The one-time Australian Minster for the 'Yarts', Sir Leslie Colin Patterson KBE (Barry Humphries), is a lecherous, drunken, chain-smoking slob and vaunted cultural attache. Now, Sir Les has received a promotion, as Australia's ambassador to the United Nations, and is sent to an oil-rich Gulf state to try to make peace after a UN blunder.

FELICITY (1978) Felicity (the gorgeous Glory Annen) is a sheltered teen who surrenders her blossoming body to a world of bold sexual adventure in this homegrown erotic sin-sation from sexy Ozploitation auteur John D. Lamond.