DVD The Clinic
The Clinic is the first feature film from the relatively unknown James Rabbitts, and is a moderately successful foray into the world of horror, manipulating as it does the familiar themes and motifs of the genre, even if it doesn’t bring anything new to this done- to- death (if you’ll forgive the pun) market. The geography of Australia seems particularly suited to stories of disappeared and tortured people, its vast outback a chilling backdrop to the terrible things people in horror films delight in doing to each other. Indeed, beautiful, happy blonde individuals seem to be the ideal victims of sadistic treatment, for is this not why audiences consume horror – in order to enjoy the gradual wearing down of happy, successful people, into battered, defeated shells of themselves? And who is more cheerful than Australians (after Americans that is)?
The film makes no secrets about where its thrills will lie as the opening credits roll to a minimalistic, chilling soundtrack and the camera pans slowly over surgical instruments and a tiled floor, lingering on hooks in the ceiling reminiscent of an abattoir (indeed, The Abattoir would be a more apt title, as very little evidence of anything medical is ever seen). The opening scene couldn’t be further removed from this cold, clinical introduction, but the audience is nonetheless on familiar territory, as we cut to a sunshine-flooded motorway in 1979. Anyone in anyway familiar with this type of horror film will know the danger of being in the middle of nowhere, and to be a blonde, beautiful woman and part of a handsome, happy couple is to be similarly doomed.
Essentially the director calls upon all of the crucial elements of horror: a small town motel and its lecherous owner, Hank (Boris Brkic); the disappearance of Beth (Tabrett Bethell) and her awakening in a nightmare scenario; Cameron’s (the recently deceased Andy Whitfield) attempts to find her; and an elaborately horrible plot involving numerous beautiful women being butchered in close-up.
Beth and Cameron are on their way to spend Christmas with her mother and decide to break their drive by stopping overnight in a small town, which is never a sensible idea – Cameron obviously hasn’t watched a horror film before. The backward motel owner is a key signifier of danger, but Cameron merely dislikes the way the man ogles his radiantly pregnant fiancée. Beth has a bizarre nightmare, which is followed by the almost obligatory human moment of the film: we discover that Beth lost her last baby, and Cameron assures her that this time around everything is going to be alright. How wrong he is…
At this point in the film horror enthusiasts (and those who have been forced to make themselves familiar with the genre) will recognise the elements of a tried and tested plot, and so when Cameron leaves Beth sweetly sleeping while he goes in search of food, the audience can see the impending disaster before he has even completed his goodbye note. When Cameron returns to the motel room, it is inevitable that he will discover Beth’s absence, and it follows that the local police are not very sympathetic to his plight (has Cameron not seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?). Officer Underwood’s (Marshall Napier) inquiries as to whether the young man uses drugs, and whether they had a troubled relationship, drive Cameron into a rage. He lashes out, accusing the motel owner of “stealing Beth” before attacking him and getting arrested (the revelation that Cameron never does rescue his fiancée will not surprise readers or spoil the film).
Meanwhile, Beth wakes up in a bath of ice positioned beneath a row of meat hooks. Even before the camera pulls out to reveal her naked body and flat, massively scarred stomach, Beth begins to sob and we guess that her baby has been taken. With impressive strength for someone who has been so recently ‘operated’ on, she drags her beautiful form out of the bath, dresses (her naked body could only be onscreen for a brief time before becoming gratuitous), and escapes the building, but only to emerge into an industrial area in the middle of a wasteland – a bland and hopeless mise-en-scene of yellows and browns. Her attempts to escape fail and she passes out to be found by three other women, all identically dressed, recently pregnant, and impossibly slim and beautiful (not a varicose vein or post-baby belly between them.)
Veronica (Freya Stafford), Ivy (Clare Bowen) and Allison (Sophie Lowe) don’t explain how long they have been in this place, and nor does the filmmaker feel the need to elaborate on their back-story, but rather sets out destroying them one by one. Horror is diffused by a crowd, and while the women stay together there is safety in numbers. They discover another inmate, and we see a close-up of her recently re-opened wound before she dies, Veronica revealing that this woman didn’t to this to herself, adding another layer of threat to the women’s dilemma. They decide to stay and find the babies rather than immediately escape (displaying a perhaps baffling loyalty to a baby they have never met.)
The girls split up not once, but twice; separations we know will end in disaster, and Rabbitts doesn’t disappoint in the dispensing of it. He introduces swarms of insects, ominously flickering lights, vicious dogs, herds of murderer-concealing cattle, an intellectually challenged man, a cigarette-smoking man observing events and crossing out the women’s files as they die one by one, a deranged and murderous woman, and lots of lights being switched off. The twist that he introduces is fairly novel, as each mother must tear open her stomach in order to identify her baby (Rabbitts clearly states at the start of the film that all of this happened before DNA became an identifier), although it is potentially borrowed from the Saw premise – how far would you go to escape, etc.
Rabbitts borrows liberally from several sources.
Rabbitts borrows liberally from several sources: from the setting of the procedures in an abattoir (the family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were employed in the local abattoir before it shut); to the cigarette- smoking man watching the women as they attempt to escape (cigarette smoking man, or Cancer man, from The X Files); to the son with a mental disability (too many films to mention, and not solely horror films either); to the threat of a remote motel (Psycho anyone?), and so, ultimately, this film is not particularly original, although skilful camera work and talented actors ensure that the frights, though predictable, will cause the more sensitive audience members to jump.
Many will argue that there is very little originality possible or present in any modern piece of art or media, and so a more specific problem with the film is its lack of plausibility. Not only is every one of the women impossibly slim and beautiful, the entire premise of their captivity makes no sense. Each woman has a tag in her stomach which corresponds to a tag on a newborn baby. To discover which baby is hers, the woman must rip open her stomach and locate her tag. As each woman is brutally murdered for her tag (Rabbitts really revels in the murders, lingering on the dying women’s stricken faces and flailing legs), one wonders why the pursuing mother never asked whether it was possible to extract the tag without killing its owner, and, more importantly, does it really matter which near-identical baby belongs to whom? Couldn’t they rescue ALL of the babies and then worry about which one to take home? Leaving aside these minor quibbles, however, it has to be admitted that The Clinic is a solidly acted and executed effort from an emerging talent.
Although Rabbitts brings nothing of real novelty to this well-established genre, he utilises its elements to great effect. At times, the sheer amount of obstacles placed in the way of our protagonist may seem exhausting, but the film is held together by Bethell’s strong performance and by the near-seamless cinematography. Indeed, it is hard to believe that this is Rabbitts’ first feature-length film, as the only flaws of the production – incredible plot and sometimes histrionic performances – are faults common to most horror films. The Clinic is certainly worth a watch.
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