Color, 1979, 95m.
Directed by Rod Hardy
Starring Chantal Contouri, Shirley Cameron, Henry Silva, David Hemmings, Max Phipps
Severin (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Synapse, Elite (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.45:1) (16:9)
Spurred on by the success of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire and a resurgence of interest in Dracula and his purported real-life influence, Vlad the Impaler, everyone went on a mad vampire binge in the late '70s. Nowhere was this more evident than the year 1979, with movie theaters crowded with bloodsucking films ranging from the serious (Herzog's Nosferatu and Badham's Dracula) to the silly (Love at First Bite, Nocturna) and even flat-out misleading (Nightwing). Tucked away among these was Thirst, an Australian stab at vampire lore with a modern scientific/industrial slant, foreshadowing a number of other modern spins still to come decades later (most obviously Daybreakers and TV's True Blood).
Plagued by nightmares in which she finds herself in a coffin, Kate Davis (Contouri) seems to have a feeling that her seemingly normal life with boyfriend Derek isn't all it appears to be. That includes opening a carton of milk to find it filled with a blood, which turns out to be the precursor to a kidnapping attempt by an underground organization called the Brotherhood. As it turns out, there are thousands of vampires around the world with their own industrialized structure, which involves harvesting a blood supply from so-called blood cows kept in captivity. The local overseers (Hemmings, Silva, Cameron and Phipps) have different philosophies about how to move forward with Kate, who happens to be the direct descendant of the infamous Countess Elizabeth Bathory and therefore a sort of queen to lead them onward. However, Kate's less than enthusiastic about being the chosen one, which inspires some of the vampiric officers to resort to mind manipulation to get her to comply with her bloody fate.
Among the slickest and creepiest of the golden age Australian horror cycle, Thirst benefits from some inventive scope compositions throughout with characters often arranged in striking geometric patterns. The actual violence level is fairly low considering the amount of plasma spilled throughout its running time, but the decision to contrast the cold, metallic ambience of the blood farm with the darker gothic atmosphere of the rest of the Brotherhood's domain was a smart one. Add to that some borderline experimental narrative techniques in the midsection during the heroine's psychological upending and you have a film that still feels unpredictable and fresh, with committed performances carrying it over what could have been some narrative bumpy patches. It's always great to see Silva, of course, and Contouri makes an unusual heroine mixing fragility and possibly instability; however, Hemmings really gets top honors here as he gets to walk a very ambiguous line until the very last scene. In what seems like his thousandth score of the decade, composer Brian May also does some of his best work here with a lush orchestral score that mostly hits all the right emotional notes.
That aforementioned scope photography was a big stumbling block for this film's potential audiences over the years once it hit home video, with the domestic New Line prints getting diced into nonsensical squares for the '80s VHS release. Overseas it didn't fare any better until a 2003 DVD release from Elite Entertainment that finally restored the film to a much wider 2.35:1 aspect ratio, making it enjoyable for the first time in decades. The film was also added to its three-disc Aussie horror set along with Strange Behavior (a.k.a. Dead Kids) and Patrick, then reissued along with those same titles by Synapse in 2008. All versions included an entertaining audio commentary with director Rod Hardy and producer Anthony I. Ginnane (a familiar name from many subsequent chat tracks and DVD interviews), who discuss the state of the filmmaking industry at the time which allowed for a great deal of creative freedom but not the richest financial resources. Other bonuses included the New Line theatrical trailer and a trio of TV spots, plus a Spanish audio track and an isolated May score track.
Those same supplements are carried over to the dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition from Severin Film released in 2014, but not surprisingly, the transfer shows off how far technology has come in just a bit over a decade. The DTS-HD mono audio sounds more robust, of course, but the big news here is the video quality. Colors are more vibrant and natural with flesh tones looking especially improved, despite the film's intentionally stylized look with early scenes in particular relying heavily on shades of beige and brown. As with the simultaneous release of Dead Kids, the black levels are also substantially deeper and more satisfying, and the slightly wider framing (2.45:1) exposes considerable extra picture information on the sides and bottom. Just check out this shot from the old DVD and then click on the same frame grab above from the Blu-ray; there's really no comparison.
Reviewed on February 22, 2013.