Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Thirst (1979)

In Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation, producer Anthony I. Ginnane is referred to as the “Australian Roger Corman,” a title he wears proudly. An actress who used to work with him recalls him being “full of shit” most of the time. A director describes how Ginnane would use the phrase “I’m getting really horny” when talking about how much money they were going to make. Quentin Tarantino, one of the financiers behind the documentary, gleefully recalls the clear, old school exploitation spirit behind Ginnane’s 1979 film Snapshot being released in the US as The Day After Halloween even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday.

Throughout film history, there have been countless Anthony Ginnane types around the world, all of them aiming for the lowest common denominator and aiming to win big by scaring a bunch of teenagers at drive-ins. Until recently, however, it feels like Ginnane’s name was only recognized by a select few cinephiles. As the man responsible for such films as Patrick (1978) and Turkey Shoot (1982), he lived to offend good taste and push whatever boundaries he could find. Mostly, though, he wanted to make money, and his formula for that was quite simple: “thriller, horror with a psychological or supernatural twist.”

One of Ginnane’s finest examples of this is 1979’s Thirst, a vampire movie about the corporatization of vampirism. Apart from one memorable blood shower sequence, it is not a movie that goes to any real gory extremes, at least by modern standards. Instead, it intrigues with its rich vs. poor allegory and impresses with an extended mind fuck finale which puts the already fragile heroine through the ringer. Thirst is often described as “one of the most unique vampire movies of our time,” and I don’t disagree.

What’s It About?

Thirst introduces us to “The Brotherhood,” a global blood cult whose members freely walk in the sun and live off of human blood covertly delivered in special milk cartons. It’s obviously a far cry from the traditional fanged creatures of the night. In fact, when Thirst’s “vampires” don fangs they appear to be specialized prosthetics, and except on rare occasions when they directly attack someone their victims mostly consist of drugged humans who are milked like cows at a health farm.

Our gateway into this universe is Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri of The Day After Halloween), a rather well-off descendent of the Elizabeth Bathory bloodline. The Brotherhood abducts Kate and attempts to brainwash her into becoming a member, arguing that her notable lineage will bring all of them great power. When she refuses, two key executives in the cult – played by David Hemmings (Deep Red) and Henry Silva (Alligator) – debate what to do next.

Why I Watched It

Ever since digesting the Not Quite Hollywood documentary earlier this year, I’ve been watching more Ozploitation flicks to fill in my knowledge gap, and when I saw Thirst pop up on Shudder I was pretty well sold. I can’t pass up any movie which comes with the following tagline: “This ancient Evil is now a modern industry.”

Did I Like It?

“Ginnane’s first comment was, ‘I want you to know right up front this is being made for the drive-in set.’ So, we tried to find a sequence that would really keep the audience on edge.”

That’s what Rod Hardy told Not Quite Hollywood about his approach to directing Thirst, and sure enough, he designed a shower sequence for the drive-in hall of fame:

It’s roughly halfway through the film, and Kate believes she has escaped the cult and returned home where he longtime maid informs her she’s only been gone for hours, not days. That’s already offputting since it flies in the face of everything we’ve seen so far, but Kate buys into it and hopes a shower will wash away the bad memories. Halfway through, however, the water turns to blood and covers poor Chantal Contouri head to toe.

To freak us out even more, the maid enters the bathroom in response to Kate’s screams and reacts as a mother might to a daughter getting her first period. It happens to all of us, her face seems to say, before she serenely declares, “The thirst is in all of us.”

That tends to be the type of thing people remember most about Thirst, and understandably so. However, while the imagery is extreme it’s the context around it which I find more impressive. Simply put, for the entire second half of this film the audience has no idea what’s real and what isn’t. Kate wanders from one encounter to another where reality seems to be contradicting itself, and by the time she ends up in a tomb and the walls start to cave in it’s genuinely unnerving horror storytelling.

For that reason alone, I’d regard Thirst as highly recommendable. However, even before we get there the film’s Soylent Green version of vampirism is already clever enough to make the story stand out. According to Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, Thirst’s stab at a thoroughly non-traditional vampire movie was part of a mini-trend of that era, joining the likes of Ganja and Hess (1973) and Blood Relations (1979) in its story of “civilized vampires procuring their nourishment under the cover of medical institutions.”

We’ve more recently seen a movie like 2009’s Daybreakers take Thirst’s ideas even further. However, even today Thirst stands out as an especially clever take on vampirism: what if a bunch of rich assholes just milked poor people of their blood because they thought blood-drinking imbued them with powers? Given the way things are going, sounds pretty plausible to me.

Did It Scare Me?

It’s more unnerving – particularly the mind fuck finale where we are just in the dark as Chantal Countouri as to what’s really happening – than scary.

Where to Stream

Shudder, Fandor, Amazon Prime

Random Parting Trivia

Why does Henry Silva look so terrified and out of sorts?

Because to pull off this shot they took the skids of a helicopter and bolted them to the side of a cherry picker, promising to only lift it a couple of feet off the ground with Silva attached. Instead, he was lifted 50ft in the air, leaving him screaming and flailing about. Looks pretty good in the finished film, though:

That’s Ozploitation filmmaking for you.

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Vampires on horses! Well, technically just the one vampire on the one horse, but still, pretty cool.

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