Director Mark Hartley gives a new look to Richard Franklin’s '78 shocker, despite his ambivalence for remakes.
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16 Aug 2013 - 11:07 AM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2013 - 11:07 AM

For years now, director Mark Hartley says he has been trying to make a narrative feature film. He was at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2008 with his documentary Not Quite Hollywood when the idea of doing a remake of Patrick was pitched Tony Ginnane.

what thrilled and chilled people then isn’t necessarily going to thrill them in 2013

Today, Patrick, originally released in Australia in October 1978, is considered a classic of its kind. Produced by Ginnane, directed by Richard Franklin and written by American expat Everett de Roche, it's a spooky thriller set in a private research clinic that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Bates Motel in Psycho.

The plot is about Patrick, played by Robert Thompson, who exists in comatose state, eyes wide-open 24/7, and spits whenever anyone gets too close. He seems in possession of special telekinetic powers, being able to move objects and create mayhem by sheer force of will. As Patrick becomes obsessed with the new nurse, Kathy (Susan Penhaligon), it becomes clear that the poor sod is playing an unwitting role in some sinister medical experiment. A fierce revenge awaits. The characters fill out a gothic role-call; there's a mad doctor, played by Robert Helpmann in peek camp form, and Julia Blake is a venom-tongued, wicked head matron.

Hartley was a fan of Patrick, and a dear friend of Franklin's until the latter's death in 2008. (Not Quite Hollywood features a lengthy segment on Franklin, Patrick, and the director's 1981 masterpiece, Road Games.) Still, he felt Franklin's film was rooted in the 1970s and that made it attractive as the basis for a remake.

“The idea of Patrick is so great… [but] what thrilled and chilled people then isn't necessarily going to thrill them in 2013,” he says.

Not Quite Hollywood was a critical hit and sold well on DVD. But Hartley, who began his filmmaking career in music video, saw no career goal in documentary (though he's made a sort of sequel to NQH in Machete Maidens Unleashed!, 2010, about exploitation pictures made in the Philippines in the '70s and '80s). Still, Not Quite Hollywood brought him closer, he told SBS via phone from his home in Melbourne, to realising his ultimate ambition.

After Ginnane came on board as producer for the remake, Hartley began working on a script with screenwriter Justin King, who had researched Not Quite Hollywood. Both filmmakers share an encyclopedic knowledge of all things genre. The pair began to conceive of the project as something of a rejoinder to the current trends in horror.

Hartley's film stars Sharni Vinson as the nurse, Charles Dance as the sinister Dr. Roget, and Rachel Griffiths as his daughter and matron. Scattered with sly references to the original, it's a rich looking production – tricked out with no less than 400 SFX shots and creepy sets by Robbie Perkins – that cost an estimated $5 million to make, says Hartley, and took just 25 days to shoot, mostly at Melbourne's Docklands.

“The idea of what is a horror film is has obviously changed a great deal in the last couple of years,” Hartley says. “For young people, a horror picture is basically something that has no jumps in it – it just has people being nasty to each other. That's the last thing we wanted to do.” What they had in mind, says Hartley, was a 'Gothic chiller'. This finally translated into a visual style that is pure 'movie'.

“My brief to Steve Cooper, the special effects supervisor,” says Hartley, “was I wanted every effect to have a kind of 'film reality' as opposed to a 'real life' reality so you could get a sense of artistry behind it.”

These days Franklin's Patrick counts amongst its fans Quentin Tarantino (see Kill Bill). But in 1978, many of the reviews praised Franklin's skill and trashed the film. Hartley and King, their dedicated affection aside, had their own issues with the original: “Well, it lacks atmosphere.” Hartley says that Franklin wanted a moody feel, while cinematographer Don MacAlpine wanted the images 'real'. MacAlpine won.

Perhaps a more egregious conceptual flaw, says Hartley, is in the appearance of the title character. In the story, Kathy develops a deep affection for this weird patient that transcends her job role, which is hard to understand since he looks a lot like a cranky Marty Feldman. In the Hartley/King version, Kathy and Patrick share sexual fantasies: “So we needed him to be handsome,” says Hartley, “a sort of pristine wax effigy, like John Philip Law in Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968).” He cast Jackson Gallagher as Patrick, a good-looking newcomer, with, Hartley says, “something going on behind the eyes”.

Recognising that most Australian genre films didn't have familiar faces to help sell them, Hartley and King wrote what the director describes as 'a florid' script to attract 'name cast' involvement. “We weren't just doing a horror/slasher pic,” he explains. “Justin liked to call it a 'smart/dumb' movie.”

The strategy worked. Griffiths was impressed and so was Richard E. Grant, who was originally signed as the movie's 'heavy', but had to exit the role over scheduling issues, before Hartley eventually cast Charles Dance.

The biggest problem, says Hartley, with the production was the availability of the actors. “We only had 10 days with Dance and Griffiths.” Still, all the performers willingly stepped into a movie – and a shooting technique – where each movement, shot and cut is pre-planned.

“They embraced this particularly kind of filmmaking where the camera dictated the action,” he says. “There was no time to have those massive conversations about what the character ought to be doing. After a take, Charles Dance would ask for notes and I would say 'no'… I was simply in awe at how the dialogue – which we thought might be a bit clunky – could be made to sound fantastic.”

Franklin's Patrick was a homage to Hitchcock. With its swirling, creeping, predatory camera moves, menacing high angles and split-diopter shots, Hartley's Patrick is an unabashed, unapologetic tribute to, he says, “our film heroes – all the people like de Palma and Argento who were doing those Hitchcockian thrillers in the '70s and '80s.”

Hartley is particularly proud of the fact that he managed to persuade famed Italian composer Pino Donaggio (Carrie, 1976, Blow Out, 1981) to contribute a typically lush score (recorded in Prague with a full orchestra), adding to the films '80s throwback feel. Even Hartley's contemporary movie references were a nod to a classical style: The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona, 2007) and Julia's Eyes (Guillem Morales, 2010).

Coated in a delicious looking pall of gloom courtesy of cinematographer Garry Richards, Hartley's vision of Patrick, cheekily grotesque and always fun, follows the basic plot of de Roche's original script but adds new subplots, original action beats, and a touch of splatter like, say, a sucking wound here, a popped eye-ball there.

“But our Patrick is its own thing,” he says. “I hope there's enough there to appease fans of the original, but I have to be honest and say that never did I ever feel I was remaking Richard's film.”

In a bit of symmetry, Hartley wryly appreciates that his 2013 version of Patrick had its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

As to remakes, in general, Hartley is ambivalent at best.

“When I read that Willy Wonka, Dr. Phibes or Colossus: The Forbin Project are to be remade, I think 'please don't ruin my childhood'. They don't need to be remade and I know it sounds strange for me to say that because I've just remade a film, but some films need to be left alone.”

Right now the director is in pre-production on a new feature doco about the notorious '80s B movie maestros Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. He hopes to make another feature soon, too. Will it be genre?

“Well, 'genre' is such an expansive term,” Hartley muses before explaining the pitch as “Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971) meets The Naked Prey (Cornel Wilde, 1968), with a touch of Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971).”

“It's not a sensitive film about teens coming to terms with life in the modern urban environment,” he says with a smile in his voice. “Make of that what you will.”