Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Stone (1974)

I’m still catching up on 1970s ozploitation movies. This time it’s Stone, a biker movie that built up a huge cult following in Australia.

A political assassination is witnessed by a member of an outlaw biker gang, The Grave Diggers. Well he sort of witnesses it - in fact he’s so out of it on drugs he doesn’t even remember it. But the assassin is taking no chances. He’s not sure which member of the gang was the witness, so he sets out to kill off the entire gang one by one (in very creative ways).

The police don’t get much co-operation from the bikers in trying to crack the case until they send in Stone. Stone is a long-haired cool guy hip young motorcycle-riding cop, although in fact he has a university degree and a very upper-class girlfriend. Stone’s job is to go undercover with The Grave Diggers. They’ve very unimpressed with the idea of having a cop joining their gang, even on a temporary basis, but when Stone saves one of the gang from a murder attempt by crossbow they reluctantly accept him.

Stone is a good cop, but he has a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak. Yes, he’s a bit of a maverick loner cop! He takes a bit of liking to the gang. He see them (and the film portrays them this way) as a genuine alternative society with its own moral rules and code of honour. This is going to cause him major problems, since his loyalty to the gang isn’t always going to be consistent with his equally strong belief in justice and the due process of the law. Especially when The Grave Diggers make it clear they intend to execute their own brand of justice.

It’s an ultra-low budget movie, but like so many Australian movies of its era (it was released in 1974) it’s quite spectacular, with some frighteningly dangerous stunts and some pretty impressive high-speed motorcycle scenes.

The plot includes some interesting ideas, and the ending (which I can’t say anything about since it’s really the whole point of the film) brings Stone’s divided loyalties and their consequences into sharp perspective. Unfortunately the plot includes some silly ideas as well, but its sheer energy more or less carries it through.

The acting is a real problem. Ken Shorter is OK as Stone. Writer-director Sandy Harbutt tries hard as Undertaker, the gang leader, but he doesn’t quite have the necessary charisma. Hugh Keays-Byrne gives one of his usual unintentionally campy performances - how this guy gets taken seriously as an actor in Australia is beyond me. Most of the gang members aren’t totally convincing, although VIncent Gil is very good as Dr Death (and having him as The Grave Diggers’ resident Satanist priest is an interesting touch that turns out much less embarrassingly than you might expect).

This is very much a guy movie. The women characters are there to provide the nudity that any 1970s exploitation movie required (although strangely for the 70s there’s actually as much male nudity as female). Rebecca Gilling must have appeared in just about very Australian movie of the 70s! And she must have taken her clothes off in every one of them. She’s a good actress but she’s wasted in this one. Sandy Harbutt clearly has zero interest in his female characters. It’s all about male bonding and loyalty and male codes of honour, which gets pretty tedious after a while.

At least it isn’t afflicted with the drug-addled hippie nonsense that made Easy Rider almost unwatchable.

There are some memorable scenes, such as The Grave Diggers’ funeral procession early in the film. It’s well-made, but whether you’re going to enjoy it or not depends on how much tolerance you have for such extremely male-oriented movies, and for the glamourisation of violent outsiders. It didn’t really appeal to me, but it’s still an interesting example of the sheer variety of ozploitation movies. It would make an interesting double feature with Mad Max - dealing with similar subject matter but taking a diametrically opposite approach.

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