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Tabula Rasa

Summer of Secrets

Directed by Jim Sharman, 1976

A review by Kyla Ward

You are here to help people, not to make monkeys feel bad about fucking! -- Bob

It's good every once in a while to encounter a film that subverts your expectations. Deserted beach, frolicking couple, battered old mansion that is home to an eccentric doctor; add Jim Sharman's name and certain ideas are bound to occur. Weirdness is certainly afoot; the doctor and his assistant Bob are caught in a state of deranged mutual dependency, nasty things are happening to monkeys and when under stress, the doctor locks himself in the bathroom and starts applying make-up. But he's not about to do the Timewarp... or perhaps he is. The emphasis of these games are memories, and bringing the past back to life.

This film is almost perfect gothic, and straight gothic what's more. Released the year after The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it is not only shot but set in Australia and this fact somehow compliments the narrative, which ranges over many exotic places in recollection. Bob builds models of world landmarks, the doctor has his home movies and old photo albums, posters and discarded clothes dominate the filmscape. Any intruders are bound to become disorientated, liable to be caught up. Figures from the past may have a very demanding presence. Bob's brief excursion to the nearest town (to get the doctor's sleeping pills) highlights the mansion's insular character and is quite funny, as a collection of country dwellers completely fail to acknowledge anything strange or even urgent in his appearance. There is a wry humour to this film, although some is either unintentional or at the expense of Steve, the erstwhile hero. But by this point I wanted to get back to the mansion. I had realised that the obvious story, the one I had expected, was not the one being played out.

The film takes its time. The plot develops by slow accretions for the most part, though when the first climax comes, you certainly know it. However, this shifts the film even further along the track of its own strange logic. When Kym, the heroine, concludes that they might as well stay on in the house (where she has been thoroughly used, as she puts it), it does seem quite reasonable.

Good gothic in the cinema requires good cinematography, and while within the mansion this it has. The trek between the mansion and the beach becomes repetitive after a while and even the chase sequences seem encumbered, possibly by the actors' need to move carefully across rugged terrain. In many other respects this film has a solid core with aspects such as Steve's characterisation and one or two plot elements (how did he survive the fall?) trailing off around the edges.

Jim Sharman's first feature as director was the 1972 rock musical Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens, a purely Australian film that kicks off in Luna Park. After shooting Rocky Horror in England he returned to Australia for Summer of Secrets and the 1978 The Night, the Prowler, a dark, psychological piece considered to break new ground at the time. He returned to England for Shock Treatment in 1981.

As the doctor, Arthur Dignam's performance is every bit as elegant and commanding as could be expected from an actor who seems to have appeared in most significant Australian films of the last three decades, not to mention Violence in the Cinema Part 1. The interplay between himself and Rufus Colins as Bob is probably the highlight of film. Colins would appear to have followed Sharman from a role as one of the Transylvanians, and follows him further into Shock Treatment. His career has been wide-ranging but for current purposes, his most interesting subsequent role was as Charlie Humphries in Tony Scott's The Hunger.

Colins was not the only Rocky Horror follow-on. Someone who has only seen her as Columbia may well not recognise Nell Campbell as Kym, but she has played many other roles, and many of them meatier than this. The meaty female role goes to Kate Fitzgerald, who may not have worked with Sharman on his magnum opus, but she was in Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens. She too has played many other roles, but her earliest known film credit is in Peter Weir's Homesdale.

Bizarrely, the cover of the 1984 VidAmerica release of Summer of Secrets nowhere says "from the director of The Rocky Horror Picture Show." It is true that the Horror phenomenon took time to emerge, but this still seems strange when they go out of their way to call it a steamy psycho-sci-fi thriller. It is neither steamy nor a thriller, nor despite the cast is it Rocky Horror revisited. The viewer who appreciates this and can tolerate a dreamy pace will be rewarded with an unusual film, and a creditable piece of Australian gothic.


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