Given the way I'm framing this summer's marathon of horror movies, it's hard to resist the temptation to speculate about the "Australianness" of these films, how their peculiarities reveal something about the cultural character of that continent and its film production. The fact that I don't really know all that much about Australian culture puts a hard limit on how far I dare take that line of reasoning, but there's definitely something about 1975's Inn of the Damned that makes one want to indulge in some pop sociology. It is a hell of a weird film, weird in ways that I can't imagine an American film of the same period on the same subjects would ever possibly be, assuming I could even get myself to imagine that an American film on these subjects might have existed in the first place.

The film is, in the first place, part of a robust subgenre of serial killer movie: the "owners of a rural inn/hotel/motel take to murdering their guests" model, which runs the gamut from the respectability of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho to the grimy mediocrity of Tobe Hooper's 1979 Eaten Alive. It's a story hook that has been around for decades, and will, I trust, be around for decades to come, and I cannot say with any authority that Inn of the Damned is actually the most peculiar single example of the form. But reader, know that I was tempted to say it anyway.

For that is, literally, only the half of it. Inn of the Damned is also a Western (a genre that extends literally to the dawn of the Australian film industry), and the Australian Western is a slightly peculiar animal in and of itself. Where most nations looking to make Westerns have generally been obliged to set them in the United States,* the Australian and North American continents have a remarkable similarity in geography and political history - they were both colonised by white people of largely British extraction from the east coast to the west, across a large central plain that generally shifts from savanna to desert, violently displacing indigenous people as "the frontier" kept advancing - that allowed Australian filmmakers to create stories of frontier life that could plumb the same themes, still accurately taking the name "Western", but put their own idiosyncratic national stamp on them.

So what we have, in essence, is a slasher Western, quite possibly the world's first (unless we want to stretch a bit and include the previous year's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Inn of the Damned is substantially more conventional as both a slasher film and as a Western). It is not an altogether happy marriage. The thing is, it's not really a slasher-Western as such, it's a Western that that transforms into a slasher for its last act, after having spent somewhat more than an hour play-acting at being a murder mystery, despite having already very clearly told us who the killers are. And that, I think, has nothing to do at all with the attempt to do a genre hybrid, and everything to do with the fact that this particular film was conceived of, initially, as an episode of writer-director Terry Bourke and producer Rod Hay's failed television anthology Fright - the same series for which their previous film, Night of Fear (the supposed first-ever Australian horror film) had been designed as the pilot episode. The big difference being that Night of Fear was completed with television in mind, leading to its trim 50-minute running time. By the time that Inn of the Damned was put into production, Fright was a long-dead memory, so it was redesigned to be a proper feature-length film. Based on the evidence we have, this was apparently done by taking Bourke's original 50-minute screenplay, splitting it about 15-minutes in, and filling the gap with all kinds of meandering, bloated nonsense until hit feature length. But that can't even explain it, for all it would take to make a perfectly respectable feature would be to add about 40 minutes, get it up to around 90 or 95 minutes. Inn of the Damned has meandering blot to take it all the way up to 118 minutes, and well over half of them are almost entirely superfluous, useless scenes that are present to goose up the body count, add a little bit of nudity, and make it much, much harder to follow the story.

So about that story: sometime in the late 19th Century, Caroline Straulle (Judith Anderson, a legendary actor making one of the only films in her native Australia after leaving it at the dawn of her career and her husband Lazar (Joseph Fürst) run an inn along a lonely rural road in Victoria, in the southeast of the continent. Here, they kill people who stop to visit. Like, all the people who'll stop to visit. The film offers no ambiguity whatsoever about this: the cryptic editing and close staging that make the first death scene such an oddly stylised affair are designed to make it hard for us to see how the murders are accomplished, but it's obvious from the word go that the Straulles are a pair of loopy old psychopaths. Setting that aside for the moment, their latest kill has attracted attention: he was a well-off Englishman named Cummings (John Morris), the kind of victim too respectable for the local police to ignore. Cummings was last seen in the company of the notorious Biscayne (Robert Quilter), who is thus the natural suspect, and the local authorities have called in American bounty hunter Cal Kincaid (Alex Cord) to find Biscayne and thus hopefully, the missing Cummings. I should at this point clarify that none of this is presented in a straightforward way, and I'm flat-out guessing at some of it.

The point being, the first long stretch of the movie is a manhunt, for a man we know to have nothing in particular to do with the plot. It's only deep into the film, when Biscayne has been caught and Cummings remains missing, that Trooper Moore (Tony Bonner) heads to the Straulles' inn to see if they know anything, after which point they've killed a few more people just for the hell of it. This includes an unpleasant wealthy woman named Mrs. Millington (Diana Dangerfield) and her stepdaughter, Beverly (Carla Hoogeveen, the protagonist of Night of Fear), whom she has apparently been sexually abusing for quite some time; the film stops cold while they bathe together and Mrs. Millington keeps threatening to rape Beverly if Beverly tells her father about their relationship, and it's just awful, even by the standards of crass exploitation. Not least because of how obviously it's just there as a purely cynical calculation - every frame of these characters could be removed without even leaving the sense that a gap has been left behind.

On the other hand, at least the film is strange. It's drawing not just from the Western in general, but specifically from Italian Westerns, most obviously in its score by Bob Young: about half of it is inexplicably ill-chosen bouncy adventure music, almost comic in nature, the rest is a pretty solid Ennio Morricone knock-off, including a genuinely terrific cue for the opening credits sequence (which is itself pretty terrific, close-up shots of a coach rolling through the desert). But the whole film has a rather distinct spaghetti Western vibe, and the random chunks of plot that do absolutely nothing but add to the running time are part of that. Watching Cord (who is quite good, given the odd nature of his character) investigate a crime with no urgency on account of how we already know more than he does is maddening in a way, but there's something weirdly enjoyable about watching this incongruous stereotype of an American Wild West lawman snarling smugly at other characters, in the absence of any sort of driving narrative context. The film is so devoid of momentum that it almost take on the poetic, dreamy quality of an actual Italian genre film.

That being said, the first hour is a real slog, even if it's strange and misconceived enough that it's kind of compelling and watchable in a "how is this even a movie" way. When it fully shifts over to being a slasher, it suddenly becomes actually decent, probably because that's where the film was supposed to live all along: Kincaid poking around an old inn that's first just generically mysterious and then openly horrifying, while a pair of batshit killers are in a panicked tizzy downstairs. At which point I finally get to talk about Judith Anderson, clearly the best thing about Inn of the Damned. It's mortifying to think that, at this point in her career, this is what she was getting (she'd mostly moved into television; this is one of only four theatrically-released films she made in the last 25 years of her career), but she has the great professionalism not to treat it like a throwaway role. Indeed, part of what makes this whole thing such a discombobulating experience is seeing Anderson committing so hard to the logic of her character. A character that is, lest we forget "old woman who kills everybody because the death of her son made her go crazy". And damned if Anderson doesn't hit some extremely strange target of bringing decades of stage training and experience to inhabiting the part of a kitschy old fruit loop. She is, basically, applying great technique to being garish and campy. When she rolls her head around, or talks in a frenzied, wrathful panic, or squints with deadly menace, she does all of the things in a big, hammy way, but she's not just going up to 11 and staying there. It's modulated hamminess, something I didn't even know could exist.

Anderson's presence does a lot to make Inn of the Damned more interesting than a suffocatingly overlong exploitation film with tonal problems should be. So, for that matter, does Bourke's directing, which comes alive in all of the murder scenes. There's a lot of elliptical cutting (we almost never see the deaths themselves, and a couple of times no even the aftermath), and stangely close shots turn the violence into little crystalline pieces, creating a subjective feeling of violence that makes everything more vicious and violent. Lazar, at one point, swings an axed right into the camera, and the whole frame flashes red - that's maybe the corniest example of what I'm talking about, but it also works in a potent, uncanny way.

All of which is to say that Inn of the Damned is a pretty successful horror film, in its strange way. The problem is that's a somewhat confused and bloated and aimless Western, and it spends much more of its time as a Western than a horror film. I find myself in the weird position of having been glad I saw it and wanting to recommend it to others, despite having not liked it much at all; it's strange that way, and for as much as it's blatantly broken and unsuccessful - and extremely boring, to be frank about it - it's a strangeness I can get behind.

Body Count: The stylised way that some of the deaths are cut, and the ambiguity over what exactly happens in a flashback scene, makes me uncomfortable stating a definitive number, but I think I got 9.

*The big exception is Russia, which set them in Central Asia, and called them Easterns; the handful of East Asian Westerns I've seen take place in Mongolia or Western China, but I'm not sure there's enough of them to really call it a proper genre.