Monday, June 02, 2014

PATRICK (1978)

After Carrie (1976) the cinematic gloves were off and floating around the room. Telekinesis was suddenly a part of the language of horror movies and it was time to catch that bandwagon and jump aboard before it trundled off the cliff. It was time to attach invisible wires to objects, fling them around rooms and marvel at the terror generated by the power of the unleashed mind. It helped that in Carrie and most of the follow-ups/rip-offs the individual slinging deadly things about was a late blooming teenager suffering through puberty in a way that made the average first menstruation, ball drop or voice change seem like a grand day at Six Flags. These movies represented every parent's greatest fear and simultaneously embodied one parental great hope. What mother doesn't wish for their offspring to be able to stand on their own two feet and deal with bullies in a confident, decisive manner? What dad doesn't wish for their daughter the ability to fend off slimy grab-handers with a flick of her princess eyes? Make no mistake — for every nightmare scenario that telekinetic powers conjures up it offers a similar fantasy of effortless, unstoppable strength with few, if any, restraints. The supernatural powers that Carrie White used to enact her vengeance on her schoolmates are the daily dream of every picked upon, mistreated, pushed around kid on every playground and schoolyard on the planet Earth. It is the ultimate "I'll show you!" desire that wells up inside anyone being slapped around by others with strength but no honor. The beauty of the Australian produced Patrick is that the film doesn't take the easy path to have you identify with its title character. Instead it shows him to be what he truly is— a spoiled child in an adult body with no sense of or concern for the harm he does each time he acts out against those around him. Of course, not everyone in the film has his best interests in mind... but that's where things get interesting.

In a pre-titles sequence we see blonde, curly-haired Patrick (Robert Thompson) murder his mother and her lover by tossing a plugged-in heater into their post-coital bathtub. Cutting to several years later Patrick has become a comatose patient in the private Roget Clinic, run by the rather sadistic Dr. Roget (Robert Helpmann). The doc is keeping his latest coma patient alive to study the effects of various nonstandard treatments on his condition. Along comes a young, pretty, recently separated nurse named Kathy (Susan Penhaligon) who takes a job at the clinic after passing a tough interview with the prudish head nurse, Matron Cassidy (Julia Blake). The Matron has no love for her new nurse but seems to have no love for anyone else either, and appears to fear our boy Patrick — she won't step foot inside his room! Kathy is placed in charge of Patrick's room for the second shift hours. She is obviously sympathetic towards him as he lies bedridden, unable to move or show any measurable brain activity. After a few days something strange occurs and Nurse Kathy begins to think her patient is trying to talk to her. By telepathically working the keys on a typewriter Patrick is able to communicate with her but refuses to repeat these amazing feats for anyone else. These telepathic abilities also allow Patrick to wreak havoc at a distance, which translates into trashing Kathy's new apartment out of anger and burning her estranged husband's hands. Once she realizes what is happening an earlier near-drowning of her new lover (Bruce Barry) fits the pattern of jealous rage directed at sexually misbehaving women that started Patrick's story. How far will the lad go before he is stopped? And how do you stop someone capable of tossing you around a room with the power of his mind?

Patrick is a well regarded horror film but not a well loved one. Many times I've heard people complain about the fact that almost nothing of a horrific nature takes place in the movie for nearly half of its running time. I can understand this gripe because if all you're looking for are shock moments, gore or arch villainy this film offers little to sate you. But if you have the patience to simply watch the movie and let it tell its story at its own pace it's an engrossing piece that creeps under your skin and pulls you into it. The movie is very much from the point of view of Nurse Kathy as she notices each small clue about Patrick's abilities and begins to communicate with him. I suppose the script was written to carefully introduce the fantastic element slowly in an attempt to slide it past more resistant viewers until they could be caught up in the story. For my money it works for many reasons, not the least of which is down to the fine craftsmanship involved. Make no mistake — this is a well made film. Director Richard Franklin would go on to make two more brilliant thrillers after this one (Road Games and Psycho 2) before an almost criminal career slide into TV work and only rare returns features. A damned shame, as he clearly knows how to make a suspenseful movie build scene by scene to a satisfying, electrifying climax.

The film also has a nice, adult sense of reality about its character's relationships with each other. Kathy is conflicted at the beginning of the story, unsure if she should return to her husband or start an affair with the handsome playboy doctor she meets at a party. She isn't trying to play both sides of the field but her search for what is best for her is interesting and well played enough to have kept me interested even without the telekinetic plot. I will admit that the film hovers between being a little too long and being lengthy enough to let its story breathe. I'm on the fence about whether it's overlong for the tale it has to tell, but I have to say that I like the fact that time is spent getting to know the characters well enough to make them more than waiting victims or screaming ciphers. Also, I love the small touches placed throughout the film that pay off if you pay attention, like the flickering sign under Patrick's window and the sound of Matron Cassidy's stocking clad feet as she sneaks around the clinic. And even if I feel that Brian May's very effective score sounds like 'Bernard Herrmann Lite', that's really not a bad thing at all.

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