Inn of the Damned

  • aka Death Hunter
  • aka House of the Western Dead

On a lonely stretch of road, deep in an isolated Australian rain forest, lies an eerie, forgotten inn. Few travellers stop there now, and those that do … disappear!

An American bounty hunter (Alex Cord) is hired to unravel the inn's chilling secrets. He is soon confronted by its demented owners, obsessed with guarding the terrible truth within.

Action packed with sadistic violence, bare flesh and tainted sex, Inn of the Damned is a horror classic that will shock you to the core (Umbrella DVD slick, peddling the show's grindhouse elements)...

Alternatively, in an old wayside inn in Gippsland, north-eastern Victoria in 1896, a mad old woman, Mrs Straulle (Dame Judith Anderson) and her apparently mute husband Lazar (Jospeh Furst) take vengeance on society for the death of their children, years before, at the hands of an escaped convict. 

After many murders have taken place, including the killing of a woman and her step-daughter, who like to frolic together in the nude on the bed and in the bath-tub,  an American bounty hunter (Alex Cord) comes to investigate the mysterious happenings at the inn.

He's accompanied by western movie trappings, a score which pays homage to Morricone, and during a long night of violence, he manages to end the rampage of the old couple ... who have been relying on a Wilkie Collins-style bed to do their dirty work ... (adapated from the Oxford Australian Film)

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Production Details

Production company: Terryrod Productions

Budget:  the budget began at A$228,000, including an investment of A$160,936 by government investment funding body The Australian Film Development Corporation (press report); then it climbed.

$417,000 (David Stratton); $427,000 (Colin Bennett), $450,000 (Cinema Papers' production report). Despite the initial low budget, and a subsequent blow out - though perhaps not to the level estimated by Stratton - the film was touted by producers and distributor as one of the most expensive made in Australia to that date.

Locations: Blue Mountains near Sydney, standing in for the Gippsland area of Victoria. Marlows Creek, Hawkesbury River. The film's end credits read: filmed on location at Mangrove Mountain, Gosford, Camden, Cobbitty, Bringelly, Ebor Falls and Narrabeen in New South Wales, Australia; interiors Artransa Studios, Epping

Filmed: shooting began November 1973 with location work in the Blue Mountains. Originallly a six week schedule, which expanded to nine, but this included second unit and pick-ups. 

Australian distributor: Roadshow

Australian release:   13th November 1975, Paris Theatre, Sydney. The film was given its television premiere in Australia on the Seven network - on 20th March 1977 at 8.30 pm for ATN7 in Sydney.

Rating:    M

35mm       Eastmancolor

Running time: 118 mins (Oxford Australian Film)

Region four DVD time: 1'52"27

Box office: minimal. The film only did two weeks in its original Sydney theatrical outing, and did not break wide in NSW or other states. The Film Victoria report on Australian box office lists a gross of A$178,000, equivalent to $1,043,080 in A$ 2009, but this figure can be considered generous, as the film ran for only two weeks in its initial season at the Paris in Sydney, and did little business elsewhere.

It did travel internationally - producer Rod Hay claims a rare sale to television in the United States in his DVD commentary - and there were other sales, but the film did not perform as strongly or as widely as expected.

Opinion

Awards

None known.

Availability

The film has been released in region four by Umbrella, in a double bill with the Bourke/Hay horror show Night of Fear.

The film has audio commentary track by co-producer/editor/post-production supervisor Rod Hay and actor Tony Bonner, the original theatrical trailer, and a stills and promotional gallery. The galleries contain some interesting period material, and Hay and Bonner fill in the time in an amiable way without delivering too many insights.

The image is in relatively good condition, in correct format, with some film artefacts, but with relatively rich colour - as noted by co-producer on the DVD commentary, the film stocks of the time were ridiculously low speed, and the images show DOP Brian Probyn's skills off well. There is some deliberate softness in some of the images - Probyn wanted a lush, soft green feel for the Australian bush interiors, using fog filters, over exposure and a stop down in printing, while interiors were inclined to be warm and brown.

The sound is acceptable, and having the first two Bourke horror outings on the one disc makes for a good package.

1. Source:

Inn of the Damned began life - like Bourke's earlier feature Night of Fear - as a script for his intended one hour television series Fright, cancelled by the ABC after they took fright at the sight of sex, violence, rats, bondage, blood, Satanism and Norman Yemm in Night of Fear.

The story reeks of Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant and real-life stories of murders in inns, common enough in Victorian times, and of course the terrible Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca, also played by Judith Anderson. Producer Rod Hay in the DVD commentary, mentions Poe, along with Hitchcock and Roger Corman, as inspirations for director Bourke. 

But at least one element likely owes a lot to a Wilkie Collins' story, The Traveller's Story of a Terribly Strange Bed, originally published 24th April 1852 as Collins' first contribution to Household Words.

The narrator, Faulkner tells how he breaks the bank at a low class gambling house in Paris, and accepts accommodation rather than take his large winnings home late at night. The canopy of the four poster bed is attached to a screw by which it can be lowered from above to suffocate unsuspecting victims (in this case, Faulkner, unable to sleep, escapes to alert the police). The story was collected as one of six in Wilkie Collins' first collection, After Dark, published in 1856, and is available online.

It includes this scene:

It descended--the whole canopy, with the fringe round it, came down--down--close down; so close that there was not room now to squeeze my finger between the bedtop and the bed. I felt at the sides, and discovered that what had appeared to me from beneath to be the ordinary light canopy of a four-post bed was in reality a thick, broad mattress, the substance of which was concealed by the valance and its fringe. I looked up and saw the four posts rising hideously bare. In the middle of the bedtop was a huge wooden screw that had evidently worked it down through a hole in the ceiling, just as ordinary presses are worked down on the substance selected for compression. The frightful apparatus moved without making the faintest noise. There had been no creaking as it came down; there was now not the faintest sound from the room above. Amid a dead and awful silence I beheld before me--in the nineteenth century, and in the civilized capital of France--such a machine for secret murder by suffocation as might have existed in the worst days of the Inquisition, in the lonely inns among the Harz Mountains, in the mysterious tribunals of Westphalia! Still, as I looked on it, I could not move, I could hardly breathe, but I began to recover the power of thinking, and in a moment I discovered the murderous conspiracy framed against me in all its horror.

Bourke varies the device by way of adding crushing rocks, but the elements are otherwise similar:

(Below: the Wilkie Collins' collection of short stories which provided a direct inspiration for the film's key story element).

As well as the AFDC, finance came from the Medich family, then theatre as well as property owners, and from TVW7 in Perth, which had seen Bourke's Night of Fear and agreed to complete the finance package.

2. Production:

After the censorship fuss over Night of Fear - which saw it dropped from television, and given a small release in indie theatres - Terry Bourke faced another round of difficulties with Inn of the Damned.

There was constant conflict between the production team - Bourke and Rod Hay - and the government investment body the Australian Film Development Corporation, a blow out in costs, and a long delay between completion and screening. 

Part of this was due to rain - ten days lost, according to producer Rod Hay in the DVD commentary, in the key, wet, Mangrove mountains location - but partly also because in the early days of the Australian film revival there were no completion guarantors available to handle any overages and cost over-runs due to delays.

As a result, it was left to film-makers to negotiate with the bureaucrats at the AFDC, a situation guaranteed to ensure endless discussions and negotiations.

Shooting began in November 1973, and took nine weeks instead of the proposed six weeks. According to Rod Hay on the DVD commentary track, it wasn't just the rain that caused a substantial expansion of the schedule to make up for time lost - there was also delay in one scene because a horse displayed an erection which couldn't be shot around, resulting in pick-ups for the scene hanging around until the last days of the shoot.

The schedule wasn't helped by the diversity of locations. The title sequence and an early sequence involving a barn was shot on the property of one of the investors, the Medich family, in the Camberwell area west of Sydney. Other locations included Gosford/the Entrance (an editing unit was set up in Gosford), the Mangrove mountain area north of Sydney (stunt man Peter Armstrong owned a farm in the area and recommended an old house as being period exact), close ups for a fight in a waterfall in the Blue Mountains were shot at Oxford Falls in outer Sydney, the town of Wilberforce provided some backgrounds courtesy the Australiana Pioneer Village, and so on.

Interiors for the lesbian bath tub scene and the haunted inn were shot in the restricted space of the Mobbs Lane television studios at network Seven in Epping.

Allegedly, the house at Mangrove mountain was haunted, and it was exorcised before filming began.

More prosaically, setting the film in the area led to irritation in some parochial critics - the orange groves at Mangrove mountain were singled out by Melbourne critic Colin Bennett because the film claimed it was set in the Gippsland area of Victoria.

According to Rod Hay, the casting also went through a number of changes. Initially Joan Bennett was slated to play the main role, but decided the character was too old for her and withdrew. Dame Judith Anderson, who was originally an Adelaide-born Australian, seized on the chance to catch up on her Australian family connections, some of whom she hadn't seen for 15-20 years.

Stuart Whitman was originally offered the Alex Cord role but family issues saw him pull out, and Cord - who was coming off The Brotherhood and the re-make of Stage Coach - accepted.

According to Tony Bonner, Cord was an excellent horseman who did his own leather and braid work, and gave him many tips on riding, and there is much discussion on the DVD commentary track about horses and the palominos selected to give an up-market look to the film (another aspect which irritated Melbourne film critic Colin Bennett - palominos in Gippsland?).

At the time Cord was married to Joanna Pettet, who lunched with Sharon Tate the day the Manson family struck.

Michael Craig, at the time a medium star in Britain, especially for Rank, decided to leave Britain and come to Australia because his wife was Australian, and so he scored a secondary role as the back up for Cord.

Hay tells a number of anecdotes about John Meillon given the job of providing some rustic humour in the film, saying that it was hard to judge Meillon's mood - he had a terrible temper as well as an appetite for pranks and jokes, and he was a notorious drunk. Apparently Meillon started the show warding off pink elephants in a hospital, and got drunk for the scenes where he was required to act drunk, thereby removing the need for acting. At the same time, as Hay acknowledges, he was always professional.

The dog who acted with Meillon was the same one that appeared in Age of Consent with James Mason. Australian film cultists will also be pleased to see Australian producer and director Phil Avalon do a cameo, having fun as one of the many victims who go under the axe, and getting to do a prolonged death scene.

An editing machine was moved to Gosford to begin cutting the picture. The film was cut on a 16mm reduction print, to save costs, and cut on an old Moviola. There was a 15:1 shooting ratio.

Considerable attention was given in post-production to the rating. It was feared that the film would be given an R, with the makers wanting an M.

There was a sexually explicit scene (largely irrelevant to the core horror plot) between a step mother and daughter, with lesbian connotations, which was deemed a particular concern (one of the protagonists, Carla Hoogeveen, had already done similar work for Bourke in Night of Fear). The other, largely plot irrelevant sex scene, featured Alex Cord, nudity and Linda Brown as "Peaches".

Roadshow helped smooth the way with censors - Hay says it helped to have an experienced distributor on board - and the scenes were milked for publicity in what was then the usual way, but they didn't help the film in the marketplace.

The film didn't obtain a release until November 1975, long after it had been completed, when it lurched into a two week run at the Paris Theatre, Sydney.

3. Release:

The film represented Terry Bourke's shot at the big time - a certified Dame of the English stage in the form of Judith Anderson, an imported American actor in the form of Alex Cord with solid feature film and television credits, and a period atmosphere to add a classy Edgar Allan Poe tone to cheesy murder and mayhem, aided by photography from British DOP Brian Probyn.

The film missed on almost every level with the public and reviewers, and as a result has come to be viewed as something of a cult classic by aficianados of bad horror films, with Anderson, and her theatrical performance at once the worst and the best thing about the show. 

In the DVD commentary, co-producer Rod Hay noted that there was something of a log jam of Australian films when the show reached the cinemas. It's strange to remember a time when it was thought that Australians would come out for only one Australian film at a time.

So if there were four Australian films in the cinema at the same time, the public would only go to one, and not to the others, and so valiant efforts were made to tailor releases so Australian films would appear in serial fashion, rather than in bunches.

Hay also claims that the film was the first major period piece in the Australian film revival of the 1970s, but this is debatable and requires overlooking a number of other earlier films, ranging from Tim Burstall's period episode in Libido to Thornhill's Between Wars. It might have been amongst the first at the time it started shooting, but the delay getting it into the cinemas brought it back to the field.

It's easier to argue that it was the first of the revival to combine period with explicit horror, as opposed to the genteel mystery and refined horror of a film such as Picnic at Hanging Rock. The spirit of Hammer and Roger Corman always called to Terry Bourke, and his next horror show, the 1981 Lady, Stay Dead would guarantee him fame and infamy in Ozploitation circles.