Review: Fantastic Fest 2013 opens with Mark Hartley’s remake of the Aussie shocker ‘Patrick’

Mark Hartley has made two exceptional documentaries about the history of exploitation films, one called “Not Quite Hollywood” and the other called “Machete Maidens Unleashed!” The first examined the evolution of Australia’s homegrown genre movies, and it was more than just a scholarly look at a list of movies. Hartley understood exactly why those films were so exciting, and he made a documentary that had the same sort of breathless energy that the films did, and he made a hell of a case for the significance of those films and those directors.

While I’m excited to see his next documentary, which will deal with the history of Canon Films, I’m equally excited about the notion that he took one of the films that he covered in “Not Quite Hollywood” and remade it. “Patrick” is one of those films that I knew by reputation more than anything, and after “Not Quite Hollywood” came out, it was one of the movies that got a US release to capitalize on its new notoriety. The original was directed by one of my favorite of the Aussies, Richard Franklin, and it’s an effective movie with some smart script choices, solid performances across the board, and Franklin really knows how to screw with an audience. Released in 1978, it feels like a reaction to films like “Carrie” and “The Fury” with a comatose patient who wages a telekinetic battle against a nurse. Like “Road Games,” the film seems to lean on Hitchcock at times, and that’s just Franklin. There’s a reason he was hired for “Psycho II,” and he obviously has an enormous respect for the kind of classically built scares from a different age.

Hartley seems to be drawing on a broader background in terms of how he builds his scares, and his version of “Patrick” ladles on the atmosphere from the very first frame. There’s a strong giallo vibe to the way Hartley handles things here, and while it’s definitely still “Patrick,” the script by Justin King finds its own way of laying things out. Sharni Vinson, the Final Girl from the recently released “You’re Next,” stars as Kathy Jacquard, the nurse who is hired at a hospital for the comatose, only to find herself drawn to the strange and silent Patrick (Jackson Gallagher). She is convinced that he is not unaware of the outside world, no matter how much Doctor Roget (Charles Dance) and the creepy head nurse Matron Cassidy (Rachel Griffiths) insist otherwise. Patrick spits occasionally, but otherwise seems entirely withdrawn. Kathy starts to see signs of life, though, especially when she’s alone with him, and strange things begin happening around her, as if some force is slowly but surely stripping away any support system she might have.

Making a coma patient an active malevolent threat is not easy, and Hartley struggles with it the same way Franklin did, finding different answers to the question. Some of it borders on the silly (I laughed during the entire Most Ominous Facebook Search Of All Time), and some of it is enormously effective, but Hartley always seems aware of just how tricky it can be. I think by going as gothic and freaky as he did with the film, he removes the question of “realism” from the equation. “Patrick” isn’t trying to be realistic. This is high style, where everything is in service of the uber-creepy, and Vinson makes a strong lead here even without the ass-kicking heroism of “You’re Next.”  Charles Dance is pure malicious scumbag as Roget, and he earns anything that might happen to him in the movie. I was shocked when I saw Rachel Griffiths for the first time. She almost looks like Cloris Leachman in “Young Frankenstein.” It’s a severe make-over, and Griffiths has the hardest role in the film in terms of not letting it tip over into camp.

The 1978 film had a score by Goblin and Brian May, and it’s exactly as awesome as you’d think. What surprised me is just how much of a vintage throwback the score for the new one is, with Pino Donaggio whipping the audience from one emotional extreme to another. There’s nothing subtle about it, and I get the feeling Hartley wouldn’t have it any other way. There is, simply put, a pleasure to seeing someone who has spent so much time soaking up every genre extreme putting all of that to use in something like this. He makes a few concessions to modern technology, especially when figuring out how to have Patrick make contact with Kathy, but stylistically, this feels delightfully old-fashioned.

Maybe my favorite thing about the film is just how little Hartley seems to care about what is going on right now with genre filmmaking. His heart belongs to the past, and that comes through loud and clear.

“Patrick” will be in Australian theaters on October 17, and there’s no US distributor set yet.