Monday, May 8, 2017

"Excess is What Makes Life Worth Living" - Turkey Shoot (1982)

While most of the tragically unacknowledged classics discussed here on Senseless Cinema are low budget, regional American productions, some are more epic, expensive productions (The Visitor, for example). Turkey Shoot (1982), aka Escape 2000, is another example of a well funded production, this one from Australia.

Your universe's most honored critics have a different view of the film. On IMDB, the_wolf_imdb writes, "This movie is really not bright, not clever and even very naive." Also on IMDB, bdl7421 writes, "This movie feels extremely's really just a bit of forgettable fluff." Finally on IMDB, tomgillespie2002 writes, "If you love bad filmmaking, with no social commentary, and no element of surprise or suspense, then you may well love this. But, it is, and will always be a bore!"

Bad filmmaking? Nothing, literally, could be further from the truth.

The film's titles roll over footage of revolution and police action against protestors across the world. The narrative begins with an armored van riding through the rural countryside, on its side the ominous and cryptic logo "RE-ED B-MOD."

Three prisoners lie in the back of the van, unconscious. One of them, a woman named Chris who is played by Olivia Hussey, opens her eyes, then flashes back to a happier time in a china shop, a scene that is quickly interrupted by armed policemen chasing an injured man into the shop.

A male prisoner named Paul, played by Steve Railsback, then opens his eyes and, following the established pattern, has his own flashback. We see him broadcasting over pirate radio. Fortunately for the audience, his radio show provides useful exposition. "Every day, more and more of us are being sent to the camps....The government calls us traitors or deviants because we oppose its ideals." The broadcaster is captured with a truncheon to the back of the skull.

Bizarrely, the third prisoner, a blonde woman named Rita, does not experience a flashback. She simply awakens in the back of the van.

As the van arrives, a sign proclaims the purpose of the re-education camp.

They are unloaded from the van by a limping guard armed with both a whip and an American accent. His skill with the whip is matched by his skill with the accent. We soon learn that guards are called "toads," and toads are castrated in order to make them meaner.

 In the warden's office, the warden, Campmaster Charles Thatcher, plays a giant game of chess with his visitor, the Secretary. Their status as evil, not to mention members of the upper class, is exemplified by the tumbler of brandy and the pipe used by these nefarious gentlemen. They banter about the ease with which they can take advantage of the attractive female prisoners, both pretending to be heterosexuals despite the "Campmaster" job title.

Campmaster Thatcher orders his bald guard to demonstrate the rules to the newcomers.

Oddly, the rule appears to be reciting a speech about being a deviant while a bald guard punches the air near your face while making sound effects with his mouth.

In case the newcomers have not yet gotten the point, the Campmaster explains that the new society has no room for shirkers, malcontents, or deviants. "Freedom is obedience," he says. "Obedience is work. Work is life."

We find out that "work" includes holding concrete blocks overhead, gutting fish, and showering with the other prisoners of both sexes, all of whom are young and attractive.

The title of the film is soon explained as we watch a group of artistocrats playing with automatic rifles. They have been invited for the hunt. One of them, showing remarkable if somewhat unrealistic self-awareness, says,  "Excess is what makes life worth living, for people like us."

The aristocrats watch the prisoners from a tower, choosing their targets for the hunt. After assembling the prisoners yet again, Campmaster Thatcher explains that the reverse of their motto is true as well. "Disobedience is treason. Treason is a crime. Crime will be punished." (The pedantic audience member might object that this second motto is not the reverse of the first in any way, and in fact is not even structured the same. Such pedantry could be considered treason.)

The purpose of the prisoner assembly is to "play ball," a game punishing a prisoner who attempted to escape. Each of the escapee's legs is tied to a large ball filled with gasoline. The escapee attempts to carry the balls around while circled guards, or toads, kick the balls around. The somewhat convoluted point of the game is to spread gasoline on the ground; a "touchdown" occurs when the guards light the gasoline aflame and the prisoner is burned alive.

One of the aristocrats, watching via closed circuit video, says of the game, "It beats the hell out of network television."

After the limping guard attempts unsuccessfully to rape Chris in the shower, Paul starts to make a serious plan to escape the camp. First, however, the film introduces another of its surprises--a mutant werewolf that one of the aristocrats brought to camp for use in the hunt. The werewolf bears some resemblance to Graham Chapman.

Campmaster Thatcher sets up the hunt by explaining the rules to the selected quarry, who are coincidentally the three incoming prisoners and their new friend Dodge. The prisoners will be freed tomorrow. They only have to lead the aristocrats on a "chase" for one day. If they survive until sundown, they will be freed, complete with their own legal identity cards.

The next morning, the prisoners are set free, but the catch is they must leave the camp at 30-minute intervals, making it difficult for them to work together. They are also joined by another prisoner named Griffin, for reasons not divulged to the audience.

The aristocrats give chase. One does so in a fairly cliched manner: driving a dune buggy/bulldozer with his mutant werewolf. The others leave the camp on foot, in a conspicuously red four-wheel drive vehicle with a giant fan on the back, or on horseback.

Dodge is captured quickly by the man and his werewolf. Instead of killing him, the werewolf rips off his little toe and eats it. Fortunately for Dodge, there is no loss of blood. His hunters allow him another head start. However, after a few minutes' chase, they catch him and kill him with a series of professional wrestling moves.

Campmaster Thatcher has chosen Paul to hunt. Thatcher fires his rifle at Paul, forcing Paul off a cliff and into a river, where Paul ends up swimming for his life.

Griffin attempts to be clever by stomping on the forest floor to create deep footprints, then climbing a tree. However, his footprints stop right at the base of the tree, so any pursuer will have little difficulty deducing why the tracks stop.

Paul, possibly believing he is in a roadrunner cartoon, uses a lever to create a rockslide to block Thatcher's long red vehicle. Thatcher gives up and turns around.

Meanwhile, Griffin acquires a gun from the limping guard, then meets up with Rita. "Attack is the best form of defense," he says, paraphrasing the better known variation of the phrase incorporating the words offense and defense. Griffin runs off, but soon he is pinned down in a firefight with Thatcher, armed with a rifle, and the lone female aristocrat, on horseback and armed with a crossbow that fires explosive arrows. Griffin is killed by both the arrows and being run over by Thatcher's red vehicle.

Chris makes her way through the jungle. Like most women in jungles, she is menaced by a snake, but she escapes it and her pursuers.

In the film's most horrific scene, Paul escapes from the mutant werewolf, who is crushed and then bisected by the dune buggy/bulldozer.

After much, much more chasing, some of which involves a grass fire that makes a sound like popcorn popping, along with the implication that a woman kissing another woman is more horrible than death.

Paul and Chris float down a river and eventually make a horrifying discovery when they reach a beach. They infer that they are on an island, and their captors never intended to let them go. (The validity of the conclusion that a beach implies an island is left unexplored.)

Paul confronts the bald guard on the beach in a fight that recalls the finest action scenes on Get Smart. Paul easily defeats the much larger guard by throwing sand in his face, and also by Chris's use of the guard's machete to chop off both of his hands.

The act of violence on her part deeply disturbs Chris and she runs along the beach until Paul catches her. "We can't quit now because if we quit now, everything we believe in dies."

Paul and Chris run away from the beach and take down the man in the dune buggy/bulldozer. Commandeering the vehicle, they return toward the prison camp, killing guards along the way with the machine gun mounted on the roll bar. All it takes to break back into the camp and free all the prisoners is this small dune buggy. There is a massive, thrilling firefight as the young people fight the guards with machine guns and grenades.

However, Thatcher and his government have more tricks up their sleeves to deal with the threat of freed young people. Fighter planes are launched into the air.

During the firefight, Paul blows Thatcher up with a machine gun.


The planes reach the camp and drop bombs, but all the prisoners are gone so the bombs merely destroy buildings and guards.

Paul and Chris smile at each other and walk off into the jungle. The fighter planes simply disappear.

The film ends with a quotation from H. G. Wells: "Revolution begins with the misfits..."

Turkey Shoot's excellence stems in part from its marvelous pedigree. Aside from acclaimed actors like Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey, the film was directed by the talented Brian Trenchard-Smith and produced by none other than actor David Hemmings. These professionals give the film strong pacing, clean cinematography, and a unique setting to tell their story of social injustice.

And what a story it is! The first half sets up the intriguing notion of labor camps for young people who pose a grave threat to society by working in china shops and broadcasting generic messages of hope over the radio. As in any society, even a futuristic one, such brazen disregard for the freedom of others cannot be tolerated. The labor camp, or more accurately the re-education camp, is depicted with much detail, showing the young prisoners showering together and frequently conversing about their escape plans.

Intolerant critics might accuse the second half of the film of lagging somewhat, reducing the action to a rehash of The Most Dangerous Game, but the pacing really only flags for about fifty percent of the latter half of the narrative.

The filmmakers' talents allow them to mix the aesthetics of a 1970s Saturday morning children's program with occasional energetic depictions of nudity and violence. In this way, they are able to get their political message across brilliantly. That message is exemplified by naming the campmaster Thatcher. (I can think of no other examples, however.) According to IMDB, Turkey Shoot was commercially unsuccessful in Australia and the United States, but it was a hit in the United Kingdom, so the satirical name of the campmaster turned out to be a shrewd choice. In the end, the important things is that Turkey Shoot is another example of commercial entertainment that makes its audience think deeply about an important subject.

That subject is youthful rebellion. I think.