Regrettably, this is not the space for a condensed history of the entire Australian film industry prior to 1970. Suffice it to say that the country was a major producer of films through about 1913, including The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, generally agreed to be the first feature-length film. After this point, a combination of censorship (the government banned bushranger films, by far the most popular genre), the global effects of the First World War on the film marketplace, and the meteoric rise of the United States as a filmmaking powerhouse (with its concurrent ability to economically pressure whatever nations it wanted to put up with its bullying) all contributed to a steady decline in Australian production through the 1910s and '20s. By the end of the silent era, Australian filmmaking had functionally ceased to exist, and for the next 40 years, the nation's film industry existed largely as support staff to the Hollywood and British production crews that wanted to film in Australia for this or that reason, and as a farm for talent that would end up in one of those two countries. This changed in 1970 largely because Prime Minister John Gorton decided that enough was enough, and began instituting national support systems for native film production. As a result, the '70s witnessed the Australian New Wave, a vibrant array of films by and for Australian audiences. At this time, most of the films that received significant international distribution consisting of action, thriller, and horror genre films typically bundled together under the term "Ozploitation".

I bring this up because 1972's Night of Fear is usually referred to as the first Australian horror film (this depends on precisely where you set the boundaries of "horror", but I'm content to agree with it), and this is because, to an extent, there really couldn't have been any prior to this moment. So it's almost a matter of accident that this film earns that title, even more so given that producer Rod Hay and writer-director Terry Bourke didn't even mean for this to be a film: it was meant to be the pilot for a television horror anthology series titled Fright (and, in fact, the opening credits still treat it as such). It was only after the Australian Broadcast Commission took one look at the extremely rough and nasty content of the program and basically said "no chance in hell" that Hay and Bourke took it to theaters, and even this met with concerns that its content was simply too brutal; the film was banned before being released late in 1972 on appeal.

Not knowing the Australian film marketplace in the early 1970s, I can't say whether that's arbitrary horseshit or not, but it is a pretty nasty piece of work, especially in its last 10 minutes or so. The film is an early entry in what would prove to be a durable subgenre of Australian horror (and U.S. horror as well, a few years down the line), the "my car broke down in the backwoods and now I'm being hunted by some terrifying psychopathic country bumpkin for no reason" film. In this case, the film's effect is amplified by its origins on television: this runs less than hour (some sources claim 54 minutes, though the version I watched was 50), which means it doesn't have much time to do any fucking around. Imagine cutting the first half out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one of the greatest entries in the genre's history, removing the gradual introduction and leaving only the panicky nightmare behind. That's awfully like what we have with Night of Fear, a film that starts going at top speed and only slows down for a little bit, around ten minutes in, before speeding up even faster.

Even more than its snug running time, the other most noteworthy element of Night of Fear, and the one that most firmly dictates what will prove to be its strengths and weaknesses, is a central... strategy? I feel very bad calling it a "gimmick", because I'm absolutely certain that Bourke didn't think of it that way. But it absolutely plays like a gimmick. The film has no dialogue, is the thing. The only human speech we ever hear is on a radio broadcast; there are also some screams and panting. but not one word is ever spoken by a character in the film. This works extremely well for any stretch of the movie that's dedicated solely to the chase: these sequences would most likely have been free of dialogue anyway, and the uncanny mood placed over the entire film imbues those scenes with a freaky, dreamy vibe that makes the chase seem even more like an inescapable nightmare.

The flipside is that the lack of dialogue puts a limit on how we get information, and this causes Bourke problems that he hasn't entirely figured out how to solve. There are a newspaper headlines in the film, let us say, and a lot of wobbly pantomime, and it can be awfully silly at times. Certainly too silly for a horror film that has bet everything on its nasty impact, and the difference between a version of Night of Fear that's queasy and effective horror cinema, and a version of Night of Fear that crumbles into dismal camp is almost entirely a matter of the order that we encounter these scenes: as exposition, they're mostly frontloaded, nestled in between a lengthy opening sequence and the chase sequence that makes up the bulk of the second half; there's only one brief moment in the near the end where this slight hapless comes back, and it does, in fact, manage to knock the film off kilter for just a little bit; but by the point, the nightmarish quality has settled in enough that the film mostly survives it.

Given all of this, the content is necessarily essential and straightforward: we first see a sequence in which a woman called, in the credits "horse girl" (Briony Behets) is chased by a barely-seen assailant, before being caught and killed; it's a good opening as far as introducing us to the film's use of insert shots, which is how it does most of its storytelling, though other than one jarring close-up shot of a horse's eye, it's mostly just a normal wordless chase scene. Then comes the credits, and then comes the meat of the film: a woman (Carla Hoogeveen) leaves her lover (Mike Dorsey), and while driving, crashes her car; this puts her in the sights of a man (Norman Yemm) who stalks her back to his freakish lair of decay and torture, where he keeps rats to do God knows what to his victims. She evades him long enough to lock herself in a room, where she passes out and has a dream of hideous imagery involving bloody skulls and a kind of ritualistic sacrifice, all present in the form of sharp cuts stitching disconnected shots into a montage of horrifying imagery. She then wakes up to find the killer scratching at the lock, and it would be a real shame to say what happens after this, but let us say that the ABC had good reason to think that this was a lot too much, in terms of both the depiction of content, and the sheer meanness of what's being depicted.

As a whole, Night of Fear is basically working with just three things. The least of these is the jarring, panicky music that appears to be from a library; the film has no credited composer. It's pretty obnoxious and frankly a bit desperate, and between the music and the piped-in screaming and breathing, Night of Fear sounds much flimsier than it looks. One of the other two things are Hoogeveen's extremely good reaction shots, which get at something of the "read my expression instantly without me pulling faces to get there" performance style of an actual silent movie actor, and while we never get a chance to learn about this woman, for the obvious reasons, Hoogeveen at least gives us ample room to empathise with her.

The third thing I've alluded to: editing. The film is cut brilliantly by Ray Alchin, with an editing scheme that embraces the drifting, dreamy otherworldliness that is already enforced by the lack of speaking, to create something that's basically like the slasher movie version of a Soviet Montage film. This starts early, when black frames are spliced into the killer's walk, for no reason I can discern other than to make us feel shaken and unnerved; it culminates in the assembly of the dream sequence, which is absolutely the film's highlight. It basically becomes a mixture of inexplicable things that don't link together, except that they pull in all the things we've seen throughout the film, including rats and horses, and give us an overwhelming sense of hopeless and being trapped without a way out. It's using editing techniques that were designed to let us make intellectual and emotional connections between shots, and turn them into a distressing pile-up of horrifying innuendo, and it sets us up perfectly to feel shocked and drained by the film's concluding scenes.

If all of Night of Fear was at that level, I don't even know that it would be watchable, it would be so horribly intense. As it is, that's the one moment that stands out as a complete success in a movie that often feels like a very well-built exercise. Still, one moment is more than plenty of horror films can boast, and given the pure nastiness of some of the more "normal" moments, this is a pretty easy film to admire, assuming you're the sort to admire films for being effectively and unapologetically nasty. How much of Australian horror followed in this film's footsteps, I cannot say, but it certainly got the national incarnation of this genre off the best possible start.

Body Count: 2, which is pretty much the most that it possibly could have; it seems likely that a third will be following in the near future.