Blu Notes: The Quiet Earth (1985)

So you know how earlier this summer I remarked upon how disappointing Atlas Film’s German Blu-ray of Geoff Murphy’s kiwi sci-fi The Quiet Earth sounded, and how unlikely it was that I might pick it up? I lied. Three months, a property tax return check and one all-region compatible Blu-ray player later that very Blu-ray is here, cluttering up my to-review pile. Consequently, those looking for my opinions on the film will find them here. Now, on to the disc.

Atlas Film’s Blu-ray, marketed as a 25th Anniversary Edition (and with a slipcover to prove it), is a tough fit for North American customers right from the start. While the disc appears to be all-region coded (the packaging says B, but the web says otherwise) I couldn’t get it to register as anything more than a black screen with my PS3 – the contents just aren’t compatible with most American playback systems, and will require a player that can convert from the European 1080i/50hz standard to be viewed properly. Even with that limitation accounted for a more important question remains. Does the troubled presentation here even constitute an upgrade, especially with a strong (albeit out of print) DVD already kicking around domestically?

Others have speculated that the transfer of The Quiet Earth presented here was originally minted for television broadcast purposes, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any I could come up with. Whatever the case it certainly isn’t the same transfer from which Anchor Bay’s earlier DVD was mastered, and that isn’t really a good thing. The bottom line is that The Quiet Earth looks pretty rough here, having been sourced from a positive 35mm source of exceptional grittiness. Indeed, the texture here looks more like analog video noise than legitimate grain, and in darker moments it can be quite overpowering. The image is notably crisper than on the aforementioned DVD, but also lighter and frailer in appearance, artificially sharpened, and blessed with an abundance of physical imperfections (cue marks, dirt, specks, scratches and so on). More problematic still is the color, which is substantially flatter here than on the DVD by virtue of the inferior source materials. The iconic parting shot of Saturn rising on the horizon appears especially, and unforgivably, weak (just compare it to the final shot in our old review, which was taken from the DVD).

Technical specs are modest as well, though considering the limitations of the source transfer they serve their purpose just fine. The Quiet Earth resides on a single layer BD25 and receives a meager Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of just 17.6 Mbps. Ideally interlaced material is more forgiving of paltry bitrates, and that appears to be the case here – despite the unimpressive numbers there are no distracting encoding flaws to report. Audio arrives in four flavors, two English (5.1 and 2.0) and two German (crummy 5.1 upmix and 2.0), each presented in lossless DTS-HD MA. I didn’t linger on the German, but the English sounds just as good as it ever has, and perhaps a tad more robust with regards to John Charles’ score. The disc arrives with optional German subtitles, and despite the 25th Anniversary hubbub only duplicates the supplements of the Anchor Bay DVD – a commentary with producer Sam Pillsbury and a theatrical trailer.

Perhaps it’s memories of just how unimpressive The Quiet Earth has looked in the past (I’m still hanging on to my old CBS-FOX laserdisc) that keep me from loathing this presentation as much as I should, but even they aren’t enough to make me happy with it. Atlas Film’s Blu-ray is at best a passable way to view the film, and for those who already own the fine Anchor Bay DVD it leaves precious little to recommend. Skip it.

More Blu-ray screenshots

All screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Still want it? Find The Quiet Earth at Amazon.de

Mr Wrong

dir. Gaylene Preston
1986 / 83′
written by Geoff Murphy, Gaylene Preston and Graeme Telly
from a story by Elizabeth Jane Howard
cinematography by
Thomas Burstyn
original music by Jonathan Crayford
starring Heather Bolton, David Letch, Margaret Umbers, Gary Stalker and Danny Mulheron
Mr Wrong
 is available on OOP VHS under the American title of Dark of the Night

Meg (Heather Bolton perfectly embodying a mixture of inexperience/naivety and hidden strength) has left her country home for the big city (I’d insert a joke about what “big city” means in New Zealand here, but that would be oh so inappropriate seeing where I live), where she works in an antiquities store. To make it easier to visit her parents over the weekends – and probably as a symbol of her freshly won independence – the young woman buys a used Jaguar.

Her first long drive with the car does not go quite as well as Meg would have hoped for. When she stops by the side of the road to take a night nap, she’s awoken by hard and pretty unhealthy sounding breathing noises from the back seat of the car that start whenever she turns off the interior lights. Worse, or at least even more frightening to her, there’s nothing and nobody to see on the back seat.

After that experience, Meg becomes increasingly nervous and afraid of the car, a state of affairs that is certainly not improved by further peculiar happenings surrounding it. After Meg has had a nightmare centring on a long-haired woman, she sees the exact same woman standing by the side of the road trying to hitch a ride in her waking life. For whatever reason, Meg stops for her.

However, the woman isn’t alone. A man (David Letch) gets in together with her, but he doesn’t seem to actually be together with the woman as Meg assumes. In fact, he doesn’t seem to know about the woman’s presence at all, which becomes understandable but not exactly less peculiar when she suddenly just disappears from the car. The guy is more than just a bit creepy too, and Meg has a hard time getting rid of him.

This experience is nearly enough to convince Meg of getting rid of her car as soon as possible, and when she learns that its last owner was a young woman about her age who was murdered, and whose killer has never been caught, our heroine does try to sell it off.

That, however, is much easier said than done, for the car begins to sabotage Meg’s efforts in ways that could be explained away by bad luck, if it weren’t clear to the young woman her car was haunted.

While all this is going on, a mysterious someone begins to send Meg roses – surely, this won’t have anything to do with the rather more horrible things going on in her life right now?

  
  
  

I know little about the movie scene in New Zealand (with the exception of being quite intimate with the films of Peter Jackson and Jane Campion), so I can’t really say how typical Gaylene Preston’s Mr Wrong is for the cinematic output of the country in the mid-80s. What I can say is that it is a pretty fantastic little film in mode and mood of the clever – and quite weird – ghost story. Given that this is based on one of the handful of supernatural tales Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote, the “clever and weird” part isn’t too much of a surprise; it is, however, quite a positive surprise how well the Weirdness of Howard’s story and Preston’s naturalistic eye on the New Zealand of the 80s complement each other.

As frequent readers of my ramblings will know by now, I am an admirer of low budget films that make use of the cheapest of all special effects – local colour – to set the mood of their stories, and am even more of an admirer of films that are letting the very real of a specific place and time collide with the Weird and the peculiar, so I am predisposed to liking Mr Wrong, as it is a film whose whole modus operandi is very much based on these techniques. Even better, Preston really knows what she’s doing in this regard, showing herself to be equally at home with taking a – slightly sarcastic – look at her central character’s live and times (I wouldn’t be too surprised if there were a certain autobiographical element at work here, either) and with slowly showing the seams and cracks of Meg’s existence where the disquiet and the strange can enter through, cracks, the film seems to say, even the most unspectacular of lives has. Are, after all, Meg’s life and that of her unhappy predecessor in car ownership all that different from each other? Preston doesn’t overstretch the parallels between the woman and the haunt. In fact, if you don’t want to see this aspect of the movie – that is most probably there to demonstrate something about the way a woman still has to fight for her independence (in the sense of self-ownership) – you will probably never notice it at all. It’s always excellent when a director is subtle with the treatment of her film’s metaphorical level.

From time to time, Mr Wrong is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s the kind of roughness that comes with the territory of making movies for little money in a place where making a movie can’t have been all that easy to begin with, and is offset by a direction that can be creative and imaginative without feeling the need to show off. After all, it’s clear to see for everyone that the director really knows how to use the idiom of the ghost story and the thriller without any need for her to point it out to her audience like a bad Hollywood actor trying once in his life for actual acting. Instead, Preston’s film impresses through an unassuming intelligence.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Dead Alive

a.k.a. Braindead   Year: 1992  Company: Wingnut Films   Runtime: 97′
Director: Peter Jackson   Writers: Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Music: Peter Dasent   Cast: Timothy Balme, Diana Penalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Brenda Kendall, Stuart Devenie, Jed Brophy, Stephen Papps, Murray Keane, Glenis Levestam, Lewis Rowe
Disc company: Lionsgate   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: DTS HD-MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish   Disc: BD25 (Region A)   Release Date: 10/04/2011
Available for purchase through Amazon.com

Before he found himself tooling around Middle Earth in the most expensive and protracted LARP session in history, writer and director Peter Jackson was cutting his cinematic teeth on genre-bending exploiters the likes of which the world had never seen.  It may be difficult for some to grasp that the man behind The Fellowship of the Ring was also responsible for the demented The Muppets take-off Meet the Feebles and the drive-through alien insanity of Bad Taste, but there are just as many of us who became Jackson fans strictly because of his unhinged past works.  After working with tiny budgets in the latter part of the previous decade Jackson’s company Wingnut Films finally came into some substantial financing in the early ’90s, and the immediate result was the director’s first film to receive any real worldwide exposure – the gloriously outrageous gross-out masterpiece Dead Alive (or Braindead to all of you lucky enough to have the film in its original title).

Written by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh and their sometimes collaborator Stephen Sinclair, Dead Alive follows the budding relationship of reclusive mother’s boy Lionel and the lovely Pequita – a romance pre-ordained by a stack of tarot cards and Pequita’s creepy grandmother.  Standing in the way of any hope of happiness for the young lovers is Lionel’s mother, an insufferable nag who’s not quite herself these days.  After an unfortunate run-in with a vicious and purportedly cursed Sumatran Rat-Monkey at the city zoo, mum devolves into a putrescent sack of homicidal idiocy that Lionel deals with as best he can.  Veterinary tranquilizers do the job for a while, but unexpected encounters with punks, nurses and the local clergy soon find Lionel stuck with a basement-full of troublesome stiffs, and the arrival of estate-hungry uncle Les and his gaggle of hard partying cohorts only makes things worse.  As the situation spirals further and further out of control Lionel and Pequita are forced into drastic action to save both themselves and their fated romance…

If there’s one thing that leaps out at me every time I sit down to revisit Dead Alive, it’s how obvious it is that Jackson and his co-conspirators love film – Dead Alive is the sort of production that really wears its inspirations on its sleeve.  The film begins on King Kong‘s Skull Island, far west of Sumatra, with an asshole explorer running afoul of superstitious natives in his quest for a rare beast – the bothersome Sumtran Rat-Monkey – which is brought to life, naturally, through stop-motion animation.  Back in Wellington, Lionel hearkens to Anthony Perkin’s portrayal of immortal screen Psycho Norman Bates, albeit with a potential for heroism taking the place of homicidal mania, while Jackson and company hint at secrets in his past with flashes of Deliverance-style hand-out-of-the-water illusions.  Once Lionel’s mum is infected the film treats audiences to a veritable parade of zombie genre homage, referencing everything from the Dead works of Romero to Raimi’s more slapstick take on the material – Jackson and effects man Richard Taylor take particular relish in the “total bodily dismemberment” of the latter.  There are broader references as well, like the famed cemetery-bound kung fu battle between some zombie punks and the inimitable Father MacGruder (“I kick ass for the Lord!”), and one bit for the real nerds among us – a brief glimpse of a poster for Johnny Weismuller in Jungle Moon Men that foreshadows Lionel’s final act of macho heroism, swinging to safety by belt as he and his beloved share a kiss.

More than just paying lip service to their inspirations, Jackson and crew were also clearly enamored with the very act of making film.  Dead Alive often feels a though it were handled by a hyper-active grade-schooler who’d finally been given the opportunity to figure out his latest toy.  The camerawork, care of photographer Murray Milne (Meet the Feebles), is brimming with vitality, with the camera swishing or panning or craning in any number of directions and as often as was possible.  The compositions themselves are just as variably vivid, from the diffused soft-palette exteriors of fantasy Wellington circa 1957 to the eccentric neon-hued, comic-inspired interiors of the more horrific later segments.  Perhaps the greatest example of the enthusiasm of the men behind Dead Alive can be found in the breadth of technical effects exemplified throughout – more than just the eccentric splatter that comes to dominate the film, Jackson toys with conventional and large-scale puppetry, suit-mation, and even a bit of clever miniature work to expand his retro Universe.  Carefully photographed miniatures of a vintage Wellington no longer extant, complete with cable cars decorated in period-appropriate advertisements (and at least one building baring the Wingnut company name), merge perfectly with the modern location photography.  The temptation now seems to be to go overboard in creating a sense of location, with loads of CGI overproduction and perhaps a bit of gimmicky 3D immersion.  Dead Alive‘s old-hat techniques manage the feat without drawing too much attention to themselves, and are all the more satisfying for it.


The house where evil dwells…

All of that is good and well, but with a hyperbolic blurb like “The goriest fright film of all time” flaunted across the top of the box art it’s impossible to discuss Dead Alive without also discussing the excesses that have made it (in)famous.  While I might contest the “fright film” designation (this is comedy born of horror rather than any kind of horror outright) the rest of the statement is hard to argue with.  Dead Alive dishes out its visceral delights in such quantity that adjectives fail it – this may well be the bloodiest show on Earth.  While early gags are geared towards gross-out giggles – mention “pudding” in the context of this film and most anyone who’s seen it will give you a laughing, half-shuddering reaction – Dead Alive quickly transitions towards one-upping itself with its own over-the-topness.  This is, after all, a film famous for a scene in which a priest with a taste for the martial arts unceremoniously rips the limbs from his zombie opponent and beats him with them, and that’s just a start.

Those attempting to find logic or reason in Dead Alive‘s zombie hordes are out of luck as any sense there was to the thing quickly falls victim to the all-important gag.  It’s a welcome change in a subgenre that enjoys strangling itself in rules and regulations – “aim for the brain” doesn’t seem such a helpful piece of advice when the critter creeping your way has a lawn gnome for a head!  While some of the violence is undeniably rooted in genre conventions, as in the case of a neck-bite or two, the vast majority aims for hitherto unseen levels of absurdity.  Jackson’s creativity flourishes here in a ways that it just hasn’t in his more recent work, and its these demonstrations of his imagination unchecked that attracted so much of us to his filmmaking in the first place.  Faces and scalps are ripped whole from screaming skulls while men devoured up to their waists kick bloodied skeleton legs – one victim is so mangled that he comes back from the grave looking more than a little like a brachiosaurus.  In perhaps the classic attack of the film a young woman has her face ripped literally in two by a fiendish infant who then uses her corpse as a sort of full-body puppet!

If the zombie violence itself is extreme then that perpetrated against them is even more so, with heads and whole bodies exploding blood and nameless pulp about Lionel’s respectable Victorian abode.  One poor chap, having been cut in two, is reduced to using his legs for stilts while his whole set of internal organs, which have been granted their own bizarre life, are left to chase people about on their own!  Lionel eventually decides that he’s had enough of all that nonsense and takes matters into his own hands.  With most of the zombies gathered in the foyer, Lionel enters with a lawnmower draped over his neck and shoulders with a bit of rope.  “Party’s over!” he announces, and so begins the single most epic scene of wanton bodily destruction in the history of film.  Here the effects are thrilling in their efficacy, with assorted limbs, faces, and torsos butchered by the rumbling blade of the mower and spewed out in a stream of vivid red glop.  Never missing an opportunity for another gag, the film allows Lionel to reach the other end of the room safe and satisfied, only to look back and realize that he’s only mowed down one row of zombies and that there’s a whole horde of them left behind.  Mowing down the dead is evidently every bit as tedious and time consuming as mowing the lawn, and as Lionel turns to finish the job Peter Dasent’s synthesizer accompaniment swells into something melodious and balletic.  This is grand guignol as it might have been directed by Vincent Minnelli, and in its own way it’s every bit as genius as any of those other revered moments in cinema.

On their own gore and gags do not a terrific film make, and Dead Alive earns audience sympathies by packaging its more eccentric material within an old fashioned love story that’s actually quite touching and sweet.  In this way Dead Alive plays as the sort of pitch-perfect escapism only film can provide, offering up a happy ending that never feels trite or condescending.  We want Lionel and Pequita to be together, not because some goofy cards told us it would happen but because our investment in the characters makes us think it should.  In the end Dead Alive may be the most hopeful horror picture ever made – if these two can fend off the forces of darkness amassing against them then surely there’s a little hope for us all.  Just be sure to keep your lawnmower handy, as you never know when you might need it.


Grrrrrrrrr…

Dead Alive creeps, leaps, and splats onto Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate who, to be perfectly fair, have dropped the ball on a couple of key points.  Firstly, the cut of the film included is the slightly abbreviated 97 minute version (allegedly preferred by Jackson, though I could find no primary source for this – help!) that premiered at the 1992 Toronto Film Festival.  I’m not especially bothered by this – it’s the version that I have become most familiar with over the years – but the opportunity to include both the longer 104 minute version and this unrated 97 minute cut, preferably as seamlessly branched viewing options, was sorely missed.  Secondly, Dead Alive‘s high definition home video debut is woefully lacking in supplemental heft.  All that is included is the original American trailer in upconverted HD, and an interminable slate of Lionsgate previews that starts the disc.  A special edition this isn’t, though at least the packaging (a slight update of that for the Trimark DVD from over a decade ago) is honest enough not to lead consumers into thinking otherwise.

With no uncut version  and effectively no supplemental content to distract from it, the presentation of the 97 minute feature is very much front and center, and while I wasn’t expecting much by virtue of the low pricetag I found myself reasonably impressed, if with some reservations.  My apologies in advance for the paltry DVD comparison in this review – I no longer own the Trimark DVD and was forced to scrounge around online for the grand total of two uncompressed .png captures sourced below.  I’ve included two captures from the horrifically encoded Laser Paradise ‘Blood Edition’ for posterity, so that a more precise comparison can be made with regards to the film’s proper framing.

Lionsgate present Dead Alive under its American export title by way of a gritty 1080p transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 – slightly cropped from the intended 1.66:1.  Compared to the DVD editions this new transfer adds, substantially at times, to the left and right of the frame, as well as to the top and bottom in comparison to the 1.85:1-cropped Trimark DVD.  A marginal amount of headroom is lost compared to the 1.66:1 “Blood Edition”, but not to the extent that it proves catastrophic to the framing, and while I’d have preferred a more open presentation the Blu-ray does offer a reasonable middle ground compared to what has been available before.  While the 1080p transfer can appear quite weak at times, overly grainy and softly focused with a subtle color palette and plenty of pox marks, I don’t think there’s much here that can’t be explained away by the source materials themselves.  The soft and grainy qualities of the image appear for the most part to be a product of the original photography, which is often done with wide-angle lenses and heavy diffusion filtering – this is not something that’s ever going to export a terrific amount of clarity and detail.  There are exceptions to the the norm here, with some effects takes appearing quite clear, apparently having been shot through different lenses and possibly on entirely different stock.


Case in point – the grain in this effects close-up is still visible, but much less pronounced. The darker areas of the frame seem especially crisp and clear compared to other samples from the film.

Then there is the frequent damage, which offers viewers a persistent parade of minor speckles and larger blemishes that seem excessive for even this modestly budgeted production, which is less than 20 years old as of this writing.  While there are black bits of dirt and dust to contend with the majority of the damage appears printed right into the materials themselves, showing as white flecks of varying sizes, including the odd white printed hair.  It’s all frame-specific, but the quantity was a bit surprising, and those sensitive to such things should note that Lionsgate have obviously attempted no restoration.  Color and contrast will likely also fall below most’s expectations.  With the exception of the over-the-top conclusion, with its wealth of vibrant reds, colors can appear quite flat, and while I suspect that much of this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers (looking to create a sort of soft fantasy version of 1957 Wellington) the flatness has been compounded by the transfer’s low level of contrast.  Black levels are quite weak for the most part, with plenty of grain (and a bit of noise as well) lurking behind every shadow.  A bit of tweaking could easily have resolved this situation, resulting in an image that looked just that much more healthy and robust.

Technically the disc is only middling, occupying  around 17 Gb of a single layer BD-25 with the AVC-encoded feature sporting an average video bitrate of just 19.6 Mbps.  I was hard pressed to find any fatal encoding flaws, but the image still doesn’t hold up as well in close examination as I’d like.  All said, I’m not really that put off by any of the above – in motion I’d say Dead Alive looks pretty decent, particularly in the final twenty minutes or so.  While I believe Lionsgate could have improved a bit, either by sourcing from the original negative or by tweaking the transfer they had, I’m hard-pressed to think they could have improved upon it drastically. For the $13 it presently demands I’d say this looks good enough, and substantially more accurate to the source materials than some other recently lauded presentations (I’m looking at you Zombie and House By the Cemetery).

HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool.  Screenshots from the German Laser Paradise “Blood Edition” DVD were captured in .png format in VLC, upconverted to 1920×1080 (black bars were added to the left and right to fill the frame, and the original 4:3 letterboxing removed – note that the original letterboxing is very imprecise, with warping along the top and bottom of the frame, and that thin amounts of black information were left in some areas to prevent the loss of image information in others) in GIMP and compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 95%.  The two Trimark DVD comparison shots were found online in their original uncompressed .png, then upconverted and compressed at the same settings as the “Blood Edition” DVD (excluding the de-letterboxing and addition of black bars).
Blood Edition 4:3 letterboxed PAL DVD | 16:9 1.85:1 Trimark NTSC DVD | Lionsgate Blu-ray

More Blu-ray Screenshots

Gore!

In the absence of any appreciable funding having been thrown at this disc’s production, at least I don’t have an underwhelming 5.1 bump to contend with in the audio department.  What the disc does offer is the film’s original stereo recording, soundly related in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0.  The icky sound effects, which are every bit as delightfully sickening as the visuals, shine, as does Peter Dasent’s (Meet the Feebles) alternately cheesy and inspired synthesizer score.  There’s a bit of depth and even some appreciable stereo separation to be had, and Lionsgate manage to one-up many of their competitors by complimenting the track with three sets of subtitles – English, English SDH, and Spanish.

So there you have it – Dead Alive in its slightly shorter American cut (at least it’s not the bastardized 85 minute R-rated version) on Blu-ray in a somewhat uninspired but relatively source accurate presentation with strong lossless audio and no supplements beyond the theatrical trailer.  Were the asking price more than that of a modest lunch out I might have been more compelled to complain, but as things are I find myself reasonably pleased.  Yeah it could have been better, but the DVDs can’t touch it and I know damned well it could have been much, much worse (Near Dark anyone?).  For fans this is tough not to recommend, weaknesses and all.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Very Good –  Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Poor
Harrumphs: No supplemental weight whatever, and a transfer that likely could have been improved upon a bit in more capable, or loving, hands.
Packaging: Standard-size Blu-ray Eco case.

The Quiet Earth

rating:
company:
Skouras Pictures, Cinepro,
and Mr. Yellowbeard Productions Ltd. & Co.
year: 1985
runtime: 91′
country: New Zealand
director: Geoff Murphy
cast: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge,
Pete Smith, Anzac Wallace,
Norman Fletcher, Tom Hyde
writers: Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence
and Sam Pillsbury (from the
1981 novel by Craig Harrison)
cinematographer: James Bartle
music: John Charles
special effects: Phil Addenbrook,
Ken Durey and Bruce Tooley
disc company: Starz / Anchor Bay
release date: June 13th, 2006
retail price: $24.98
disc details: Region 1 / NTSC / single layer
video: 1.85:1 / 16:9 / progressive
audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo (English)
subtitles: none
supplements: audio commentary with
writer / producer Sam Pillsbury, trailer
order this film from Amazon.com


Plot: A scientist working on a top-secret international science experiment awakens to a world seemingly void of all human life other than himself.

This interesting bit of Kiwi sci-fi was quite a rarity not too long ago, only officially available in expensive and out-of-print CBS / Fox Home Video VHS and Laserdisc releases.  Infrequent showings on television and a place on late 80s video store shelves ensured that the film, which had been quite a success in its native New Zealand at the time of release, would develop a healthy cult following.  The steelbook DVD edition from Starz / Anchor Bay, now twice re-issued in standard packaging, was a long time coming, finally bringing The Quiet Earth mass market availability 21 years after its theatrical run.  In retrospect, I suppose we should be happy that the film never achieved the same level of rarity as the Craig Harrison novel upon which it is based.  My dependable Laserdisc cost all of $36, while a used copy of the novel is presently going for a cool $2,475 at Amazon¹.

Needless to say I’ve not read the source novel, though there is currently a fine and lengthy synopsis of its events up at Wikipedia.  From that it’s pretty easy to ascertain that the novel and the film are two entirely different beasts, built from the same apocalyptic premise but quite divergent in both content and tone. There will be more on that later.  Now I feel it necessary to warn that spoilers undoubtedly lie in this article’s future, and those concerned with such things proceed at their own peril.

The opening act of The Quiet Earth follows ex-scientist Zac Hobson (an exceptional Bruno Lawrence), who awakens one morning to discover that every other human being on the planet has seemingly vanished – an occurrence which may or may not be linked with his work on the top-secret international physics experiment Operation Flashlight.  Hobson wanders a deserted Auckland, leaving traces of his own existence looping in radio stations and plastered on billboards.  He takes his unique ‘last man’ position as an opportunity to enjoy the high life, moving into a stately mansion and cribbing a shopping mall of everything from television sets to a life-size statue of an emu.  It can’t last, however, and soon Hobson takes a nose-dive into depression and outright insanity, dressing in a negligee, declaring himself President of “this quiet Earth” while cardboard cutouts of Nixon and Hitler look on, and going on a one-man shotgun rampage through Auckland.

This is, by far, the best part of the film.  The late Bruno Lawrence’s performance is riveting stuff through and through, his emotions strong and entirely believable.  A scene in which he surrounds his mansion with cardboard cutouts of celebrities from Churchill to Stalin to Nixon to Hitler should be utterly ludicrous, but Lawrence keeps us in the game, our disbelief effectively suspended, all the way.  His shotgun rampage through an emptied Catholic church (Hobson literally hunting for God) has real visceral impact, with a bit of sardonic humor thrown in for good measure.  “If you don’t come out I’ll shoot the kid!” he shouts, aiming his firearm at a large crucifix.



But as with all good things, Lawrence’s one-man show must too come to an end.  The sight of the destruction he has wrought convinces Hobson to change his ways, settling into a comfortable and solitary existence just in time for the rather sudden introduction of Joanne (Allison Routledge).  Young and red-headed and with all sorts of philosophical mumbo-jumbo rattling about in (and out of) her head, Joanne is the most problematic element of the picture and the means by which its terrifically effective early drama is forged into something far more mundane.  It seems important to note that there is no female character in the spirit of Joanne to be found in Harrison’s novel, and her presence in the film all but necessitates that the narrative involve itself in the human sexual dynamic.  Joanne and Hobson have a good time with one another, naturally, searching the city for survivors and developing a playful romantic entanglement that we know won’t last.

Seriously short-changed in the film is Api (Pete Smith), a Maori man and the only other substantial character of the novel.  He is introduced late to the film and forced into the same uncomfortable slot occupied by Mel Ferrer in the very similar The World, The Flesh, and the Devil from 1959.  The Quiet Earth’s dramatics stumble over many of the same pratfalls that hamper that film’s effectiveness, with Api and Hobson spending a good deal of time asserting their authority over the other before the tell-tale signs of the ‘Effect’, Hobson’s name for the world-altering event, begin to rear their ugly heads once more².  The inevitability of a second occurrence of the ‘Effect’ turns into a standard deadline plot device, the three survivors rushing to Operation Flashlight’s domestic headquarters with a truckload of explosives in tow in a last-ditch effort to save what little remains of humanity.

The scripting, primarily by producer Sam Pillsbury and Bill Baer, really bungles the scientific angle in the second and third acts, the growing need for explanation resulting in sillier and sillier postulations about the post-apocalyptic world.  The fact that all three of the survivor’s died at the moment the ‘Effect’ first happened goes effectively nowhere, and Hobson’s concerns about a pulsating sun aren’t particularly convincing.   Hints at supernatural (God blinked) or psychological (Hobson is imagining the whole affair) origins for the ‘Effect’ further confuse the otherwise straight sci-fi narrative, but are more interesting than the science offered.  A cryptic finale returns the film to Hobson’s lone perspective, when the group’s assault on the Operation Flashlight HQ becomes a suicide mission.  Hobson pushes the button and obliterates the operation, only to find himself in a place entirely alien (unfortunately pictured in pretty much every bit of advertising art for the film).  Was the ‘Effect’ the result of Operation Flashlight?  Was it all in Hobson’s mind?  Is he in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, or some alternate reality?  It’s an answers-free conclusion, the only certainty being that Hobson is completely alone.

It’s a haunting image, with a Saturn-like planet rising over the horizon behind tufts of unearthly clouds as Hobson watches, and nearly enough to make all of The Quiet Earth‘s faults worthwhile even after the questionable matte work is taken into account (with only three effects men credited and a reported budget of $1 million US for the entire affair, I’m willing to cut lots of slack in the SPFX department).  It was certainly enough to hook me when I was younger and it still packs a wallop thanks in large part to John Charles’ exceptional scoring.  It also leaves considerable room for thought, though I’m not sure The Quiet Earth is worth the hours I (and I’m sure hosts of other fans) have spent ruminating over the intricacies of its flawed narrative.  The novel offered a cyclical conclusion, its end literally its beginning, with Hobson caught in a never-ending nightmare² resulting from his own guilt over the drowning death of his autistic son – a death he may have helped facilitate³.



The Quiet Earth is, as a whole, far from a bad film.  I’d rate it as one of the highlights of the past half-century of science fiction and certainly one of the better of the serious efforts in the genre, confused dramatics and all.  Director Geoff Murphy’s career has devolved more-or-less into sequels and low-budget action films (unfortunately including a Steven Seagal vehicle), a pity as his work here is quite adept.  Producer Sam Pillsbury notes in his commentary that several of the film’s most memorable scenes were of Murphy’s making, the invasion of the Catholic church and Hobson’s speech to his various corrugated heads of state.  James Bartle’s photography is occasionally rough but highly effective, particularly in the early scenes of the deserted Auckland.  The John Charles score has phenomenal moments, while Bruno Lawrence’s much-lauded performance acts as the glue that bonds it all together.

The Starz / Anchor Bay DVD of The Quiet Earth is quiet the looker, easily surpassing the older VHS and Laserdisc variants.  The 16:9 enhanced 1.85:1 transfer is excellent overall, with healthy detail and contrast and variable color (frequently a bit drab, particularly in the opening scenes) that’s in keeping with how the film looked when originally released.  The transfer is remarkably clean and free of damage, and even infrequent speckling isn’t an issue – I doubt the film ever looked this new when it was out in theaters.  My only complaint is with the lack of stabilization in the frame, a slight problem that has nevertheless plagued every video edition of this film I’ve ever seen.  Audio is a reasonable Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English track that faithfully replicates the original mix – there are no subtitles.

On-disc supplements are limited but welcome, consisting of a poor theatrical trailer that gives away all the highlights of the picture and a feature commentary with producer and writer Sam Pillsbury.  The latter is understandably of the most interest.  While I think it could have been improved with a bit of moderation Pillsbury still offers up a good deal of production information – what parts of the narrative are credited to which writer, how the infrequent special effects were accomplished, and just how easy it is to empty Auckland streets to shoot a post-apocalypse picture.  It’s good stuff all told, and well worth a listen.

Sometimes ‘good enough’ is just that, and I’d say that The Quiet Earth more than qualifies for that distinction.  The dramatic inadequacies become more irksome with repeat viewings, and I’d probably not harp on them so much were I not as familiar with the picture as I am.  The Starz / Anchor Bay DVD is currently only available in plain packaging, as far as I’m aware, both as an earlier re-issue and more recently as a part of their ‘Cult Fiction’ line.  I can’t see fans going wrong with either.  While the film never achieves greatness it certainly gets an A for effort, and those in search of a serious sci-fi fix could do far, far worse.  The Quiet Earth comes recommended.

¹This reviewer would love to actually read the book instead of relying on a lengthy synopsis, though at that price he thinks it should come with an automatic transmission and a free tank of gas.  If you have a copy you wouldn’t mind loaning out for a week or so I’d certainly like to hear from you!

²The world of Harrison’s novel is not haunted with thoughts that the ‘Effect’ may happen again, but by an unseen and malevolent force the crazed Api associates with the Beast of the Bible and with verses from Revelations starting with 6:12 (the time of the ‘Effect’) – the opening of the sixth of seven seals.  The Biblical connection and the unseen beast lend credence to the thought that the cyclical dream-world Hobson inhabits may well be a kind of personal Hell.

³The Hobson of the novel is far different from that of the film, and much less a hero.  The ‘Effect’ of the story is undeniably his fault, the result of sabotage he committed with the underlying intention of killing his boss.  Paranoid and very probably insane, Hobson kills Api and then leaps from a building, unable to reconcile that he was responsible for the death of every other human being on Earth.  The novel ends as it begins, with Hobson awakening from a dream of falling at 6:12 A.M.

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