I’d like to tell you about a story, one steeped in 1980s era nostalgia that makes direct references to E.T., JAWS, and POLTERGEIST all in the first 15 minutes. It’s a story about young adults forging bonds like the gang from STAND BY ME with a motley crew embarking on a mission more dangerous than THE GOONIES’ search for One-Eyed Willy’s treasure. It’s a story that meshes adventure tropes with horror and sci-fi elements into a seamless tome, both fantastic and metaphysical. No, I’m not talking about STRANGER THINGS (though this story may indeed be a lesser-known influence on Netflix’s mega-hit).
I’m talking about a movie called THE QUEST (aka FROG DREAMING, THE SPIRIT CHASER, THE SECRET OF THE LAKE, and named THE GO KIDS in the UK). Released in 1986, it features E.T.’s Henry Thomas as Cody: A 14-year old amalgamation of Data from GOONIES, THE X-FILES’ Fox Mulder, and Indiana Jones.
Official Synopsis: Still grieving the loss of his parents, a young boy living in Australia finds himself caught up in the magic of an Aboriginal myth that might be more real than anyone knows.
It was STRANGER THINGS that got me thinking about this obscure film, specifically the scenes that took place around the quarry in fictitious Hawkins, Indiana (above). The scenery knocked something loose from the back of my mind, sending me on my own quest to revisit this fading memory from my childhood.
I saw THE QUEST on VHS in 1986. It was an era when VCRs were still relatively new and exciting pieces of technology, bringing feature films into people’s homes, uncut and commercial free, for the first time (especially for those who couldn’t get cable). It was an era when Video Stores were hole-in-the-wall establishments, not for their lack of popularity, but rather for the lack of product. It seemed like a vast bounty, but back in the mid-1980s a rental outlet could have one of every English-language VHS tape in existence and it would still only filll a fraction of future Blockbuster stores.
This explains how I came to discover THE QUEST at the tender age of 12. As a hardcore horror aficionado in training, trips to the video store were a weekly pilgrimage with near religious significance. Nothing escaped my scrutiny, as I marveled over the tapes’ glossy covers, paying particular attention to thrillers and new releases. I actually remember a feeling of awe coming over me the first time I held THE QUEST in my hands.
The cover art (below) was epic: It featured “that kid from E.T.” personifying teenage bad-assery, sporting a rifle and other gear, including a huge hook. He’s standing knee-deep in dark water, and there’s a fearsome leviathan, perhaps a sinister plesiosaur, emerging from the depths behind him. It promises “a journey beyond imagination”. This was more than just a sweet piece of creepy eye-candy, it was like a hit of crack exploding in my pubescent imagination. Over the course of a 5-day rental period, I must have watched THE QUEST at least 10 times.
THE QUEST was filmed on location in Woods Point, an exceptionally plush area of Victoria, Australia. Originally helmed by Russell Hagg, based on a script penned by Everett DeRoche, producers fired the director after becoming frustrated over the film’s progress. They ended up hiring Brian Trenchard-Smith to complete the project, a man who already had a reputation for creating boundary-bursting horror movies (his filmography would go on to include: NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2, LEPRECHAUN 3, and LEPRECHAUN 4: IN SPACE). It was a bold decision, but one that obviously explains why THE QUEST tickled my future gore-hound sensibilities.
As the cover art implied, THE QUEST is indeed about Cody’s mission to reveal the truth surrounding reports of a dangerous beats living in a secluded pond, and the film does culminate in a face-to-face encounter with this mysterious creature. But there’s a lot more going on in this movie than merely a monster hunt. It’s a quest for truth. Cody’s journey takes him from famous accounts of a serpent in Loch Ness to the local legends of an insular Aboriginal tribe. There’s great attention and respect given to these cultural tie-ins, which turn out to be just as revealing as Cody’s examination of topographical maps and shuttered mining operations. Cody is one smart cookie, and this film encourages kids (and adults) to go beyond the surface in our searches for answers.
But if you’re thinking THE QUEST is a preachy or saccharine morality tale aimed at tweens, think again. While there are plenty of positive lessons to be learned, there’s also genuine terror along the way. The film definitely took a page from the JAWS Playbook, expertly exasperating fears of what lies beneath the surface. There’s something about the underwater horror of THE QUEST that feels even more oppressive, as the water is stagnant and brackish. Dark water is terrifying, but dirty, murky water is in another league entirely. Whatever lurks within lives in a world of sludge and decay, a potentially bottomless pit, possibly teeming with fathoms of other unknown horrors.
Believe me, THE QUEST has balls. An Act 3 death hits like a gut punch, giving this coming-of-age story incredible depth. But it’s also a thrilling time capsule of the 1980s, one that fans of the era will relish. The film’s conclusion is harrowing and triumphant, with an epilogue that leaves the door open for further supernatural adventures. Despite the fact that you may have never heard of this movie before today, it really is an exemplar of intelligent storytelling for young adults, one that doesn’t dumb itself down or pull any punches. It’s a reflection and a product of Regan era, but THE QUEST stands the test of time, retaining the ability to easily thrill new generations of up-and-coming horror fanatics.
Or rather, it could thrill new generations of young horror fans. But in order for that to happen, people would have to first know about the film and, second, see it. The first part can be remedied by reading this article, but actually seeing THE QUEST will prove problematic. In an age of supposed “lost” films, this one actually is extremely rare. It has never been released on DVD. Even if you have a VCR, an unused tape is likely to set you back close to $200!
A fair question is: “If THE QUEST is so awesome, why is it so obscure?” I can only pose conjecture in response. Thomas has recently discussed how childhood fame turned him into an “11-year-old hermit” (Source), so perhaps the actor’s unwillingness to promote the film discouraged studio support. Perhaps the film was deemed too intense for American audiences, or issues surrounding the portrayal of Aboriginals proved problematic. Or maybe, it’s just an example of a genuinely important and entertaining film simply falling through the cracks.
I have no doubt that THE QUEST, a film that recently celebrated its 30th Anniversary without a drop of acknowledgment, would thrill horror fans young and old, new and established, if it were given a proper DVD/Blu-ray release today. It’s the perfect property for a company like Shout! Factory, Arrow, or Vestron Video to acquire. As far as I can tell, it’s just been gathering dust on a shelf somewhere at Miramax (horded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein).
Anybody want to launch a petition?