Critics have often described Terry Bourke’s Night of Fear as a “curio”. It was also a seminal work in an emerging horror genre. The film can be categorised as part of the phenomena known as Ozploitation (a series of exploitation films produced between the early 1970s and the late 1980s specific to Australia). These films included Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), Road Games (Richard Franklin, 1981), Dead End Drive-In (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1986) and Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971).
Bourke transcended the limitations of budget, and, using no dialogue and over a very brief running-time, he created a film full of dizzying suspense and nauseating horror. He also created a minor cult-classic, even though most (even those well versed in the horror genre) have never seen it. Nevertheless, many other better-known horror classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977) seem to have sprouted from the seeds of this film or others in a similar vein.
Night of Fear, although bending several subgenres of horror, can be classified under the category of the “inbred/redneck/cannibal/backwoods-psycho” movie, if such a subgenre exists. This subgenre seems to have experienced a resurgence in the early 2000s with films such as Wrong Turn (Rob Schmidt, 2003), Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean, 2005), and Cabin Fever (Eli Roth, 2002). Yet none of the films of this later period could match the tawdriness and seediness (qualities that enhanced these films’ verisimilitude) of early films like Night of Fear.
Night of Fear has many tropes that seem to have been swiped from earlier, more conventional and formulaic fright-fests (such as the prolonged chase with the heroine tripping and falling to sustain suspense). But it must also be noted that the film is distinctly Australian. A key glimpse into Aussie self-awareness and cinematic identity occurs early in the film. An attractive young woman ties her horse to a nearby tree, while an axe-wielding madman, who is at this point faceless, unties and incites the horse to run away. Night of Fear is quicker, meaner and more graphic then anything that had been seen before in this genre in Australia (and perhaps even elsewhere). The “running off of the horse”, and what follows, symbolising a breaking free of limitations and restrictions.
A second, more disturbing “key” scene, follows the murder of the first woman and the butchering of her horse. This scene shows a woman who is soon to become the unsuspecting victim of a madman, beginning with her playing tennis and then intercut with images of her having sex with somebody who appears to be a wealthy and well-groomed man. These activities are then intercut with images of the deranged, backwoods maniac wallowing in his squalor and engaging in primitive, if not peculiar rituals such as breeding small, creepy animals that gnaw and chew at tidbits fed to them by their master. This scene, like those in many American films of this ilk, shows class distinction and poverty as being a catalyst for the derangement of the senses. What commentary is Bourke trying to make by juxtaposing such wealth with squalor? Does this feed on the audience’s biases against rural versus progressive city life? Is this a distinctly Australian paradigm or is it shared with other capitalist first-world nations, primarily the United States? Bourke raises these and many more questions in his audacious film.
Night of Fear was meant to be a pilot episode for a television anthology series called Fright, but it was deemed too graphic to be screened to television viewers at the time (it was also initially banned for cinema release in late 1972). While it did not find an audience on television, it found a niche or cult following when released theatrically in Australia and internationally in 1973. It also achieved what it set out to do: frighten and break down barriers.