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Tabula Rasa


Directed by Colin Eggleston, 1987

A review by Kyla Ward

Cassandra US video coverSteven: "He has no way of knowing who we are or where we live."
Helen: "I think you're wrong. I think he's already here."

A hand tosses old photos into a fire, save for one, the portrait of a woman, that is hidden. From the photo of an old house we move to the actual house, where a young girl tosses stones that break its reflection in a pond. A woman's voice calls, and sequence twists into a nightmare, a literal nightmare from which a young woman awakens. Cassandra, the seer.

In the Greek myths, Cassandra was the Trojan prophetess who had visions no one else believed. This Cassandra -- pale, blonde and shrinking from her nightly ordeal -- has visions she doesn't understand. The only child of wealthy parents, pampered and protected, she begins trying to work back through the memories and remnant clues as her parents repeat the mantra, "It's only a dream." It soon becomes obvious that something is being deliberately concealed, and that this something has suddenly become very, very dangerous.

Vision -- what is seen and what is concealed -- is an important theme in this film filled with cameras and eyes, though for the sake of the sensitive among us I guarantee no eyeballs are harmed. As far as graphic violence goes, the audience actually sees very little but is provided with an impression of things grim and ghastly. Cassandra, you feel certain, sees it all. In fact, throughout the film she sees the past, the present as it happens, a teasing glimpse of the future and possibly even more. The justifications for this are clear in some cases, but in others murkier than the stalk-by-night sequences.

All the tropes of the slasher movie are here; stalker POV, showers, swimming pools and cupboards, and a score with lots of strings under the creepy bits which was actually rather good (composed by Trevor Lucas and Ian Mason). But the screenplay, an original work by Colin Eggleston, John Ruane and Chris Flitchett, tries to utilise such standard material in a new way. Cassandra breaks some rules; I'll tell you that much. There's certainly more going on than the characters are willing to accept.

There are some very nice performances. Tessa Humphries, daughter of Australian comedian Barry Humphries is making her film debut as Cassandra, and hits just the right note throughout. The director of Out of the Body obviously agreed, as she appeared in that slasher/psychic movie in 1989. Her mother, Briony Behets, is also a fine turn; her venal businesswoman is actually both effective and grounding in the midst of all the shadows and mirrors. She had previously played one of the leads in Eggleston's well regarded Long Weekend (1977) and Nightmares (1980). The father, Shane Briant, is artistic, supercilious and essentially weak, which is important. The plot relies on the presence of some seriously flawed men. Interestingly enough Shane began his career in some classic Hammer movies such as Demons of the Mind, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.

Considered purely as a thriller, Cassandra is not particularly good. Some of the suspense sequences go slack and sometimes the rule-breaking backfires. But I do feel that's because it is really aiming for something else. Something that has a lot to do with intuition and striking images; the D.O.P. Gary Wapshott should stand up and take a bow. Cassandra did not have a theatrical release, which on my T.V. screen seems a bit of a shame.

So what is this something else, and does the film achieve it? In my opinion, it is aiming for a very deep meditation on destiny, which under all the layers of human weakness and culpability is an actual, supernatural force. It is more successful on this level than as a thriller, but still doesn't quite reach the pinnacle. In some ways I think the slasher tropes impede it; too much emphasis on nursery rhymes and policemen following the wrong leads at the expense of exploring what Cassandra's powers actually mean. It is also very important for the story that one particular character be able to act effectively on both the psychic and the psycho levels, and unfortunately this is handled unevenly. The film tells the story, and you can piece together the assumptions that are being made, but by the end I needed to see something clear of hallucination, clear of shadows and photographic trickery just as much as Cassandra did.

Cassandra is certainly interesting. Moreover, it is never whimsical or self-aware, characteristics which hamper many Australian attempts to portray the supernatural (I offer Howling III: The Marsupials as a case in point). Nor does it feel necessary to either pretend it is set in some other country, or draw undue attention to the fact it is set in Australia. It simply uses its many atmospheric Australian locations to good effect. This, of course, is the main reason to watch Cassandra, for it is overall a quite beautiful and disturbing piece of cinema.


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