Philip Brophy cast his first feature film, the schlock horror movie Body Melt, from television advertisements. “If I see most actors in an Australian movie I groan; I think ‘Oh, God’,” he says. “What I’m groaning at is what most people see as a sign of quality; some sort of ABC-drama aesthetic. I’d rather some Martians just came down and blew them all away.”
And, in a sense, that is what happens in Body Melt. Brophy’s film is centred on a cul-de-sac in an archetypal Australian suburb, Pebbles Court, where the residents have swallowed both the promotional hype and pills of a drug company that promises “cognition enhancement,” not at all unlike Prozac. The only problem is a willfully mis-held missing ingredient. As a result, the pills lead to horrific mutation and essentially turn people inside out. A jilted, similarly mutated genius who lives in the country town of “Nowhere” is ultimately revealed to be responsible.
The art of performance was, for Brophy, at its highest point in a scene where a young married couple, played by Brett Climo and Lisa McCune (a Coles New World girl from television advertisements and now a star in Blue Heelers), are confronted with the consequences of the drug. McCune’s character, eight months pregnant, discovers her unborn child is feeding off her. The genesis of the sequence was a television commercial for health insurance starring another, since successful theatre and film actor, Zoe Carides. “She did this amazing ad that is just so disgusting,” says Brophy. “She’s down because she’s just had a baby in hospital. It’s all white. It’s just got this sterility to it. She’s handed her baby which she sees for the first time and then she’s unsure what to do. They’ve got this music with a woman who sounds like she’s orgasming while she sings piano breathlessly and there’s a tinkling piano. It’s a soft-rock ballad and then, suddenly, the baby smiles and Zoe breaks into tears and touches the little baby’s forehead with her forefinger. I thought: ‘Great, this is the person to drop her placenta.’”
Carides was unavailable but McCune (Cheryl in the film) was an equally “nice” stand-in whose performance enhanced the original. “Doctor,” she asks on the phone. “Is it possible to drop your placenta one month prior to birth?” Her unborn child then appears to rape her before the placenta suffocates her husband.
Brophy’s previous film was the 47-minute Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat which is now available on video. Ironic and funny, it is driven by a synthesised musical soundtrack and Brophy’s actors, principally Jean Kitson and Phillip Dean, utter just 11 lines. They include: “Well, God, piss on me,” and “Knock your scrote on that dick-twister.”
“It’s virtually a form of puppetry,” says Brophy of film acting generally, and of Salt, Saliva… in particular. “It’s not that far from pornography: ‘Okay, pan back, right. Okay jerk off a bit to get an erection. You up yet? You up? Ok, quick, go in now. You scream. You scream. You scream.’ It’s not far removed from a dramatic situation where a director’s told the actor: ‘Ok, you come back to this mark. You stand there. You say that line, then turn. We’ll do the focus-pull on the lenses at that point, we’ll shift the reflector boards around and you move across there as the track comes back.’ Whether they’re saying: ‘I think we should get a divorce’ or having their head dunked into a bowl of shit (as occurs in Salt, Saliva…), the content of that action becomes slightly nullified or overridden by the mechanics of the whole situation.”
Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat is a series of days in the life of “The Man” played by Phillip Dean. “Phillip always struck me as being like one of the Thunderbirds. I don’t like actors who are in my face, the whole Method approach. This emotional outpouring; this angst-ridden identification with the onscreen person etc,” Brophy says. As a result, Dean’s most contemplative and demanding performance moments occur while shitting — which Brophy acknowledges a great character actor like Robert de Niro could do well. But naturalism is a style to which Brophy doesn’t aspire.
“That’s only one option of how you can actually look at these strange, granular, floating, abstract, pseudo-photographic, ghostly images of people on a screen,” he says of realism. “In essence they are highly iconic and hieroglyphic anyway, just by their photographic status, despite their fleshy appearance.”
The consequence is that for Body Melt he has cast soap stars and other actors for their preconfigured iconography, and the icon that looms largest is Gerard Kennedy of Division Four and Homicide fame. “It goes back to this artificial logic of the whole film,” Brophy says. “Why have a cop in a film who is really only a plot device and try to pretend that somehow the person’s a character. Why not just go straight to an iconic instance of copness?”
Brophy also casts on the basis of voice. “The bulk of all changes in anyone’s expression doesn’t particularly come from their face,” he says. “I think the face is just a slight adjunct to the much greater range of tonal differences that happen in projection: shifts in pitch, paraphrasing, beats and what not. The projection, quality and delivery of the voice gives a much more precise impression of what the character is. The face doesn’t move around as much. This is marked when you’re watching something on a screen where the face just hovers there in a sense and is very often quite internalised in its projection.”
Body Melt was shown at the Melbourne Film Festival in June 1994 where, according to Brophy, it achieved the highest attendance of any film show. It has been sold to distributors in New York, England, Canada, Mexico, Turkey, Cyprus, Malaysia, the Phillipines and Thailand, and negotiations continue with Europe and Japan. In Australia, Brophy and producer Rod Bishop are organising theatrical release themselves.
Out in the vastness of the suburbs surrounding the city of Melbourne, Australia, people are knocking themselves out just to stay in shape. And it's getting messy. Around 50 slime-soaked makeup FX shots will depict the results in Body Melt, the first Australian film specifically designed around special makeup FX scenes.
With the exception of some mid'80s work from now LA-based producer Tom Broadbridge (Out of the Body, Stones of Death) and the generic in-house -horror product (Blood Moon. Dead Sleep) that routinely pops out of the Queensland studios where Stuart Gordon made Fortress, Body Melt is almost a complete anomaly. being the first Australian all-out shocker to go before the cameras in ages. It's taken nearly half a dozen years for the people behind Body Melt to finally run the gauntlet of official Australian film funding bodies, convince them collectively of its potential worth and be ready to proceed with enthusiasm when the project was eventually green lighted.
Now on location at last, Philip Brophy, the somewhat relieved co writer, director and soundtrack composer of Body Melt, ruminates over a breakfast table on the torturous path that is just about the only option for feature filmmakers without private backing Down Under. "Here we have a variety of organizations that are not unlike America's National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute," he says. "The Australian Film Commission is like a mix between the two, and is an attempt to fuse industry with culture. The kind of films this body wants to make, though, are respectable, sensitive, socially aware, politically correct and uniquely Australian. This, in most cases, means they support totally boring movies. The will to go on sank really low at times, but fortunately we were able to get the steam up and start haranguing them all over again. Somehow I convinced them that what they need is a film like Body Melt."
And what sort of film is it, you may ask? Besides being a totally low-budget exercise (around $2 million Australian), Body Melt, as its title suggests with great subtlety, is a horror flick highly concerned with the possibilities of distorting the human form. "Basically, every major horror event in the film centers on a part of the human body and something phantasmagorical is happening to it," Brophy explains. "It was written in a free-form association way of' looking at beautiful ads on TV and just wishing that the world that most of those ads depicts would explode and cave in. In a nutshell, it's The Brady Bunch in hell, the suburbs on weird drugs and the apocalypse next door."
Before consuming one last piece of toast and getting on with the day's work, Brophy adds, "Generally, everyone has become much more obsessed with the living body. That' s what's so great about modern horror movies of the last decade or so. Whilst many present spectacular explosions of death, what they' re really about is what the body actually does when it's living. It might, die afterwards, but it's about how a body moves, pulls itself together and turns itself inside-out. They're the kinds of ideas I'm thinking of with Body Melt, picturing suppositions like, 'What would happen if someone's Adam's apple split open and ii stretched apart so their vocal chords came out and strangled them?' "
Minutes later, we re standing inside a university morgue that is just one of the several real-world settings utilized by the Body Melt team. While shooting entirely on location creates as many logistic problems as it lessens economic ones, the only real trouble this morning is entailed in getting to eyeball the amazing $26,000 Skinflex corpse created by Bob (Dead ALive) McCarron. Necks are craned and all eyes are directed towards the slab in this overcrowded room, upon which lies a naked, autopsied male body with the contents of its chest cavity and part of its stomach on display for all to see. This is the first victim of Body Melt; he has large, ugly, gill-like slits on his neck. In death he appears so realistic that many of the onlookers (except for your fearless reporter, of course) decline 1st assistant director Euan Keddie's gleeful invitation to cop a feel of the neatly placed but entirely synthetic intestines. Filming then proceeds smoothly as two sweeping close-ups are made of the corpse: one with a towel strategically covering the body and another not so encumbered for the uncut version. Italian filmmakers have been taken to court for less gruesome scenes than this.
"What I'm after, and what I' ve asked Bob McCarron to set out to achieve," says Brophy. "is for the audience to really feel like it' s their own body on the screen. That's why, although we didn't really go for realism, we also didn't go for a totally over-the-top, theatrical, fake, highly stylized approach either. The bottom line was always the question of how someone in the audience was going to respond to an image of a body doing something. And that was the center, the focus of every transformation scene. Not how realistic it looks, or how gross it is, but how an audience member is going to feel while they' re watching it."
While Brophy hopes Body Melt is afforded the chance to reach the widest audience possible, Americanization of the project has not been a consideration. "I've watched a lot of American movies; now you can watch at least one Australian film," he laughs. Rephrasing that statement a tad more diplomatically, he states, "I hope that Americans can enjoy an Australian movie as much as I' ve enjoyed many American movies." On a wider but not unrelated note, Brophy also realizes that Body Melt is something of a test case in relation to his own future and the financing of other Australian genre projects. Before heading off to begin work on what is sure to be a unique horror soundtrack, Brophy relates an anecdote from what he otherwise describes as a controlled and efficient shoot. "We had one scene that required this actress to do this really vile thing with a huge tongue she had to vomit out," he recalls. "There were actually four different tongues that Bob had specially made. She had to do this scene with goop and slime and all sorts of shit all over her. When she performed it, she really looked like she was choking on the tongue."
"Now remember, we' re talking about an actress who, like nearly all her fellow cast members, is a straight performer and wouldn't even contemplate watching any sort of horror film in her spare time," he continues. "Yet here she was, doing something grotesque with ease, and very convincingly. Then we had to place some fake phlegm around her nose, and she caught sight of herself in a reflection on the glass that was shielding the camera from any splatter, and she just freaked. She could handle this giant tongue and all this other shit, but this little bit of snot completely unsettled her." Get set to be equally unnerved when Body Melt arrives in the U.S. sometime this year.