Drive-In Dust Offs: PATRICK (1978)

2016/10/15 20:26:21 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


With the massive success of Carrie (1976), telekinesis was quickly added to horror filmmakers’ arsenal as a new weapon to terrify audiences. The immense power of the film left some reticent to tackle the subject for fear of falling short; however Brian DePalma stepped up to the plate with The Fury (1978), and that same year fledgling Australian filmmaker Richard Franklin made Patrick, a suspenseful, darkly humorous tale of a nurse and the psychokinetically disposed comatose patient that loves her.

Released on its native soil October 1st, 1978, Patrick was bought up for distribution by over 30 countries after a successful screening at the Cannes Film Festival, easily earning back its $400,000 AUD budget (half of which was chipped in by the Australian Film Commission). More good news followed as Patrick was well received by critics, and rightly so – it’s a tense little beaut with an emphasis on character and scattered shocks throughout.

The film starts with our titular character (Robert Thompson – Thirst) witnessing his mom and her boyfriend having sex, and then proceeds to admonish them by throwing a floor heater in their post coitus bath time. (Insert “shrimp – barbie” joke here.) Cut to the Roget Clinic, a private hospital for special cases, and Kathy (Susan Penhaligon – The Land That Time Forgot) is hired as a nurse assigned to Patrick, which is pretty easy work as he does nothing more than stare and occasionally let out a reflexive spit. (Being in a coma for three years will do that.) The explosion resulting from mom’s unfortunate accident landed Patrick here, and we know something is up right away when Dr. Roget (Robert Helpmann – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) explains that Patrick is physically in better shape than when he was admitted.

The thrust of the narrative kicks in when Kathy discovers that Patrick likes her; he starts communicating by using his spit technique for yes or no answers before moving on to manipulating her typewriter with his mind. Of course, Patrick has some obstacles to overcome before he can try and win Kathy’s love – namely her estranged husband Ed (Rod Mullinar – Dead Calm), and a new paramour, Dr. Brian (Bruce Barry – Ned Kelly). Will Patrick win Kathy’s love before his health insurance runs out?

Patrick belies its low budget by focusing mainly on character versus spectacle; don’t hold your breath for a big prom blowout and you should do just fine. And it really is the characters that give Patrick a boost; without a showcase for major special effects, the film flies or falls on the people within. Here no one is expendable fodder for Patrick’s doings, each one with a purpose, even if it’s the dotty old patient (Walter Pym – Thirst again) providing comic relief. Look at Kathy; disconnected from her husband, she takes the job to regain her own identity. But real life can be messy, and the script colors that in – while separated from her spouse, he’s still very much in her life and integral to the plot, as is her flirtation and dalliance with Brian. All are fleshed out more than enough for a film hinging on a single conceit. Dr. Roget is drawn a little broad and that’s okay; it’s hard to provide a monster without a madman pulling the strings, and even his eccentricities further the story rather than draw attention away from it.

The actors are up to the task of fleshing out the witty screenplay by Everett De Roche (Long Weekend), with a special nod to Penhaligon, who brings a clear headed sweetness to Kathy, while still dealing with a lot of personal baggage. And thanks to Julia Blake (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) for Matron Cassidy, the head nurse at the clinic and a close rival for Nurse Ratched in bedside manners. Thompson has probably the hardest task of all as Patrick; laying dead still and yet conveying a level of menace with only his piercing, widened and staring orbs, you always get the sense that he could strike at any time. And who knows? Maybe he does.

This was in fact the film that got Franklin the job directing Psycho II (1982), and it’s easy to see why. He clearly favors suspense over the visceral; he takes his time establishing the characters before any kind of horror related conflict, and infuses the proceedings with a dry wit that was Hitchcock’s forte. He was actually invited by Hitch to the set of Topaz after he attended a Q & A that Franklin set up and moderated while he was attending USC Film School. The Hitchcock correlation would be even more pronounced in his second De Roche collaboration, Road Games (1981), a cat and mouse thriller featuring Americans Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis. While you’re at it, see anything horror related with De Roche’s name on it – he’s a terrifically underappreciated screenwriter.

Perhaps part of the reason Patrick did so well abroad (especially Italy, home to the nutty, unauthorized, in name only sequel Patrick Still Lives) is because it has a very European sensibility. The hospital looks and has the feel of an updated gothic manor, and the lighting scheme sometimes resembles Argento at his most arcane. As well, Penhaligon and Blake are both British (which helped sell it abroad), and Franklin has everyone losing the Australian slang to give the film a broader appeal.

But this really sells short the real reason it still works today: it’s simply a finely tuned thriller with a few charmingly visceral moments, by a filmmaking team on the rise in the field of horror. And if he could, I’m sure Patrick himself would nod in agreement. But keep an eye on the typewriter – maybe he’ll drum up a review just for you.

Patrick is available on Blu-ray from Severin Films.

*Note: Image above courtesy of McBastard's Mausoleum.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE LAST HORROR FILM (1982)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.