If you assumed that Greg McLean’s WOLF CREEK was Australia’s first legit entry in the serial-killer subgenre, a majority of horror fans would probably agree with you… and the assumption would be totally understandable, because that film’s Outback psychopath Mick Taylor (played with sadistic skill by John Jarratt, pictured below with Cassandra Magrath) is one of the screen’s most horrifying villains ever.
Understandable, yes… but nevertheless incorrect. Not counting a couple of larger-budgeted US/Australia co-productions (including STRANGE BEHAVIOR, which we reviewed recently, and ROAD GAMES, which I’ll discuss soon), a few obscure down-under indie titles like the ultra-sleazy 1981 thriller LADY STAY DEAD got there first.
It’s certainly not a bump on WOLF CREEK’s level of cinematic quality, and sits more (un)comfortably among the first wave of micro-budgeted US and Canada slashers that peaked the same year. But it’s really unfair to compare the two; LADY STAY DEAD is a fairly unique oddity unto itself — even among the stalk-and-stab subgenre — thanks to its relentlessly grimy grindhouse sleaziness.
Our central sicko in this film is Gordon (Chard Hayward), a grubby handyman sporting dungarees and oversized glasses (and, in one eyeball-searing scene, nothing but skimpy black undies!) whose employment by vain and arrogant pop star Marie (Deborah Coulls) ends with him savagely raping her in the living room of her ornate beach house… after which he drowns her in an aquarium tank.
His clumsy plans for covering up the crime are aggravated even further by the unexpected arrival of Marie’s sister Jenny (Louise Howitt), and after multiple botched attempts to throw her off his trail — which include cluelessly trying to seduce her — the confounded killer finally ends up trapping Jenny inside the house while deciding how to eliminate his prey.
At this point, the film finally settles into a full-on home invasion scenario, and here it suddenly kicks into high gear, delivering some legitimate suspense and shocks — not to mention a jaw-dropping WTF finale that might make you laugh out loud from its sheer audacity. Writer-director Terry Bourke (whose first horror film NIGHT OF FEAR is also worth seeking out) is clearly throwing plot points at the wall like crazy, hoping at least a few will stick… and yeah, I suppose a few of them do.
While Howitt’s Jenny is a “Final Girl” by default (the film’s small cast is whittled down pretty quickly), she’s definitely got what it takes to go head-to-head with the sweat-soaked villain, and her survival instincts are far superior to his addled attempts to erase all witnesses to his crimes.
Sadly, she doesn’t maintain this level of heroism for long, and is eventually reduced to a blubbering mess… but her tough streak is still pretty satisfying while it lasts, especially when violently confronting a misogynistic nutbag like Gordon.
Howitt and Hayward’s combined acting chops help maintain the tension, though the latter’s sweaty attempts to convey the handyman’s tormented psyche (accentuated by gratuitous fantasies and/or flashbacks of naked and bound women) come off a bit melodramatic at first. By the one-hour mark he manages to elevate himself as a believable threat, though he’s definitely one of slasher cinema’s most noticeably flustered and clumsy villains.
Well, not entirely a believable threat; you can identify the exact point where the filmmakers decided the story needed to cash in on John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN by suddenly making Gordon seem as unstoppable as Michael Myers.
The pseudo-supernatural angle also comes into play in a few creepy scenes where the lines are blurred between Gordon’s sickening delusions and his unwinding reality — such as when it appears the “Lady” of the title is literally haunting her killer — but it’s never explored enough to add much to the tale.
While it’s far from classic status, even among more forgiving grindhouse/slasher audiences (like myself, natch), LADY STAY DEAD would still be worth a decent DVD and/or Blu-ray treatment for genre completists, if for nothing more than its surreal, schizoid blend of crass sexploitation and surprisingly stylish slasher tropes.
Frankly, I’m not sure if this title would earn enough fan support to help pull that off… apart from a limited 1986 VHS release via Video City, the film remained virtually unknown in the US until Code Red released a very short run of Blu-rays in 2014, available only from their website.
But if brain-frying slasher absurdities like BOARDING HOUSE can receive an elaborate two-disc Director’s Cut presentation (don’t worry, I’ll tell you more about that one soon), then this greasy little exploitation gem from Down Under might still have a chance to find a wider audience.
Trivia: Look for hard-working Aussie actor Roger Ward — best known to US audiences as “Fifi” from the original MAD MAX — as one of several ill-fated cops on the case.