Frenchman’s Farm

Year: 1987
Production Co: Mavis Bramston Productions
Director: Ron Way
Writer: Ron Way/William Russell
Cast: Tracey Tanish, David Reyne, John Meillon, Ray Barrett

Any movie geek worth his or her salt will have a list of 'must see' films. This was on mine the longest of any, so I watched it with excitement, satisfaction and trepidation. I still remember the newspaper ad showing a remote, outback farmhouse with supertext of years floating in the sky all around it. It looked like a time travel story, and because I (along with the rest of the world) was still in love with Back to the Future, I wanted to see it.

Of course, in the late 80s there was no such term as 'ozploitation'. Movies like this and The Cars That Ate Paris (a close but more esoteric cousin) were lucky to crop up anywhere you could see them if you were a kid in the suburbs. The worldwide success of Crocodile Dundee might have prompted a rash of Australian productions of which this is one, but most Australian films were lucky to play in small, obscure theatres for a handful of days before disappearing to VHS.

In fact the reason it's been on my list so long it because it was so hard to come by. Sure I could have bought a second hand VHS copy off eBay or Amazon, but it was more that I knew I'd catch up with it someday rather than being desperate, so I was content to wait – and did for 25 years.

Stacked up against movies from the same period (Back to the Future and Crocodile Dundee are good examples), you can see how some movies age much better than others. With star David Reyne's rainbow boardshorts and mullet, Frenchman's Farm hasn't aged well.

So as soon as you see the period style you assume the only way you're going to enjoy it is because of the irony we so often need to look back on the whole exploitation/cheap horror movement. But it has more to offer. It's not a slasher and it's not as simple minded as you expect. Despite the cheap production values there's a real story.

Jackie (Tainsh, who subsequently went nowhere fast) is a young woman visiting her mother in the fire-ravaged bush of Queensland one hot summer. On her way home through the scrub her car breaks down, and the bushland around her changes colour and shape. The radio blasts static instead of the rock tune she's been enjoying and a newscaster's voice starts reading missives that sound for all the world like World War II news reports.

Jackie finds her way to the nearby farmhouse that gives the film its title and it seems deserted, but when she approaches a man dressed as a soldier digging in a nearby field to call for help, another man appears and kills the soldier with an iron mattock.

Being a woman in an 80s movie, Jackie can't help but scream and the killer pursues her back to her car where it starts in the nick of time as he strikes with his weapon, narrowly missing Jackie but hitting a rear panel on her Mustang.

She finds herself back in her own time and can't get anyone – even bemulleted boyfriend Barry (Reyne) – to believe her, so she decides to investigate the crime herself. News stories on microfiche reveal the fact that the murder indeed happened, but that the wrong man was accused.

Barry agrees to help, and the pair approach the old timers of the town near the farm including the parish priest, who tell them a story of a long-standing feud over the family fortune, which some whispered legends say is still buried on the property somewhere.

Most disturbing of all is the painting of the steel-eyed man in the farmhouse, who it turns out was one of Napoleon's chief executioners during the French Revolution – disturbing because it's the same man Jackie saw kill the soldier, even though he lived during the 1700s.

I probably would have hated it had I watched it in 1987 when I wanted DeLoreans travelling the spacetime continuum. The time slip is never explored and only happens once, and the rest simply a ghost story.

In fact, I was sure that after a quarter century of subconsciously building it up in my mind I'd hate it. It's now old (and dated) enough to be a badly-staged and badly-acted curio – the hallmarks of exploitation – but the mystery story at the heart of it was more than I expected.

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