Production company: Secret Picture Productions Pty. Ltd.
Budget: A$370,000 (Oxford Australian Film), financed by the federal government investment body the Australian Film Commission and G.U.O. Film Distributors. Various Cinema Papers production surveys list the budget as $350,000. David Stratton in The Last New Wave puts the budget at $367,500 in his tail list of credits, but in the text cites it as $350,000.
Locations: Sydney and surrounds, mostly Wattamolla beach and surrounds in the Royal National Park near Sydney (though the featured house was actually at the North Ryde Psychiatric Centre, and belonged to a psychiatrist who vacated it for the shoot).
Filmed: 1976. Shooting commenced 16th February 1976 and the film was listed as reaching release print stage in the June-July 1976 edition of Cinema Papers. (David Stratton calls it a February-March 1975 shoot, running six weeks - perhaps a typo as in the text he says shooting commenced in March 1976).
Australian distributor: Greater Union Organisation Film Distributors
Australian release: 24th December, 1976 Rapallo Theatre, Sydney (David Stratton adds that it opened the same day at GUO's Hindley cinemas in Adelaide).
35mm Panavision Eastmancolor 5247
Running time: 102 mins (Oxford Australian Film)
VHS time: 1'42" 09 (including end "walkout" music overhang)
Box office: minimal. It "received a generally hostile press and an uninterested public" though the Oxford Australian Film also noted that it "surprised its detractors by winning two of the main prizes at a festival of science fiction films in Paris".
"... a disaster at the box office". (David Stratton, The Last New Wave)
The film was largely ignored at the 1977 Australian Film Institute awards, but did receive one nomination:
Nominated, Best Achievement in Cinematography sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (Russell Boyd) (Boyd beat himself by winning for his work on Break of Day).
The film surprised domestic critics by winning awards internationally:
Jury Prize and Critics' Prize International Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction Films, Paris, March 1977
The film on its initial release quickly disappeared from view, but perhaps as a result of director Jim Sharman's fame resulting from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the film retrospectively developed a cult following.
It was released on VHS - most importantly in the big United States marketplace - and copies are still available on the second hand market.
Collectors in other territories sometimes circulate DVD copies derived from this source, with quality contingent on the source material.
Writer John Aitken was born in Scotland and spent his preschool years in the UK, before coming to Australia with his father, a British warrant officer who transferred to the Australian airforce after the war. He went to school at Applecross Senior High School (in Applecross, WA, a suburb of Perth) and became interested in the theatre.
Aitken attracted attention in the late 1960s with his play Little Malcolm and his struggle against the Eunuchs (the Union Jack was flung into dustbins; as the audience stood for the national anthem, a voice yelled Bugger the Queen!)
Aitken studied in Canberra, travelled around Australia, then at the age of 24, won the inaugural Michael Edgley award, and used the $5,000 prize to study theatre in the UK. Two years later, he returned to script the film.
After this he returned to Perth and continued to work in alternative theatre. There is an evocative description of his peripatetic lifestyle and work by Dr. Kayt Davies here which is well worth a read for anyone interested in Aitken. (He is currently only briefly noted at AustLit here - subscription service).
Jim Sharman's path from the son of a showground tent boxing enterpreneur to the darling of Australian theatre is a well-known one. Sharman has a wiki here, and in 2008 he published a memoir Blood & Tinsel.
David Stratton in his 1980 survey of the Australian revival in the 1970s, The Last New Wave, provides a detailed guide about the way director Jim Sharman came to make the film after his earlier forays into features, Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens and then his biggest hit, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (though Sharman received little financial reward from its success):
When he returned to Australia from Europe, Jim Sharman had two film projects in mind: one an idea he and Helmut Bakaitis had discussed around the time of Shirley Thompson, was to have been a social comedy called On the Road to Paradise, about a couple tap-dancing up the highway from Melbourne to Surfers' Paradise; while the other was an idea of John Aitken, a writer Sharman had met in London through Joan Littlewood. Sharman had always, deep down, wanted to make a serious film on the Frankenstein legend and Aitken's script was a serious approach to the gothic subject, with a level of reality about it too. Sharman had been feeling a bit lost in London, living in a very unreal world, and he wanted to get back to his roots after four years away. And so, while he busied himself directing on stage the Patrick White play A Season at Sarsaparilla (which he'd first seen at the age of sixteen), he continued to work on the Aitken story which was then provisonally entitled The Secret of Paradise Beach. So, for him, this was a necessary film, a film which would hopefully exorcise his obsession with the Frankenstein theme, bring him away from the pastiche and the parody into a more "serious" area, and also enable him to engage in technical and stylistic experiments...
2. The Production and Jim Sharman:
After a false start with his first feature Shirley Thompson Versus the Aliens, director Jim Sharman had begun to attract attention with his stagework, becoming the go to director for both major stage musicals of the Hair!, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rocky Horror Show kind, as well as alternative and state theatre company ventures. (There is a list of his credits at his wiki here).
He did the film version - The Rocky Horror Picture Show - in 1975, a slow burning cult film which nevertheless attracted attention and praise at the time, and which over the years turned into a major cult item.
At the same time, Sharman hadn't been happy with his first two features, and embarked on a bold strategy for the filming of his third, as explained by David Stratton in The Last New Wave:
He (Sharman) hadn't been completely happy with the visual qualities of either of his first two films, and was determined to make something genuinely "of the cinema". He planned the film carefully with Russell Boyd, who had been chosen to shoot it (and who, after Picnic at Hanging Rock, was considered Australia's top cameraman) and they decided to shoot the whole film with one lens (as had been the practice in the early days of cinema) and to explore the use of deep focus. Also, he wanted a lighting style taht would differ from other Australian films, one which would exploit the gothic elements of the story.
The approach was influenced by false starts and by the film's producer, as explained by David Stratton:
Sharman had met Michael Thornhill soon after his return to Sydney Thornhill had by that time directed one artistically (if not commercially) successful film, Between Wars, and somewhat inspired by Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, the two discussed the possibility of working on an urban gangster film set in and around King's Cross (where Sharman was staying). A script was written, but nothing came of the idea and it was decided to go ahead with Aitken's script. Thornhill became producer and raised the $350,000 budget, half from Greater Union and half from the AFC; he was also able to give a vitally important contribution to the technical ideas, arranging a screening of that most operatic of films, Welles' Touch of Evil, for Sharman and Boyd to see the way depth of field was used in that instance.
Shooting commenced in March 1976, at Wattamolla Beach in the National Park south of Sydney, although the doctor's mysterious house was actually at North Ryde Psychiatric Centre, a house beloning to a psychiatrist who vacated it for the period of shooting. (In parenthesis, Sharman notes that even his first short film, Arcade, had scenes set at North Ryde, not to mention the framing sequences of Shirley Thompson. "I often think," he says, "that if the films weren't set there I would be.") The film went slightly over budget (it wound up costing $367,500) and shooting lasted six weeks.
Unfortunately, producer Michael Thornhill's influence and suggestions might have helped lead Jim Sharman astray.
Summer of Secrets was clearly intended to mine some of the items that gave Rocky Horror its second life. A couple of innocents turn up at a house haunted by a mad doctor, and instead of a musical, he puts them through cinema screenings of his beloved dancing, before attempting to raise her from the cryogenic dead.
Despite the tasty themes and an assortment of visual flourishes, the film failed at the box office, and remains relatively unknown.
Sharman maintained momentum in the theatre - he directed a particularly distinguished set of plays in South Australia in the 1970s, and he formed a productive relationship with Patrick White, putting on a number of White's plays - but his brief forays into feature films were rare and showed a distinct lack of understanding of the medium.
His subsequent adaptation of Patrick White's The Night the Prowler would be better than Summer of Secrets, but was also flawed …
The cast for Summer of Secrets suggests something of Sharman's company style, with Patrick White favourite Kate Fitzpatrick one of the leads, and Nell Campbell (daughter of Daily and Sunday Telegraph columnist Ross Campbell) returning after working on Rocky Horror with Sharman.
Arthur Dignam was another favourite, having played Pontius Pilate in the Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972-73. After this and Rocky Horror, Rufus Collins would then turn up in Sharman's Shock Treatment.
The film is not without interest for anyone interested in this period of cultural ferment, and it contains a good sprinkling of in-jokes as Sharman pays homage to the Frankenstein legend, though a willingness to accept a more static theatrical, rather than cinematic atmosphere, helps in approaching the work.
Michael Thornhill, better known as director of The FJ Holden, clearly, as producer, did little to help Sharman reach any kind of narrative coherence - shooting a film on one lens just because that's how they did it in the old days, or trying to match Orson Welles in using depth of field is no sure way to produce a film genuinely "of the cinema".
The film was a disappointment to all, unwisely released at Christmas time, when there was a glut of major product on release, and without anything to suggest that the film was relevant to the school holiday and festive season.
Stratton in The Last New Wave notes the reviews of the film were uniformly bad and that the film was a box office disaster.
It wouldn't be long before the film was appearing for brief bookings like one in March 1977 at the Union Theatre, the University of Sydney.
Greater Union had little understanding of how to present an arthouse film, and while the film was no great shakes, it might have been possible to squeeze a little juice out of the indie crowd.
Ironically reproductions of posters for the film are now available in the United States as a cult item. However even that's not much of a consolation, according to David Stratton:
Overseas, it did create a certain amount of attention, winning a key award at the Paris Fantasy and Science Fiction Film Festival in 1976; but buyers weren't interested and the film's overseas sales were negligible. It remains one of the least-seen films made in Australia in the seventies.
It did however get released on VHS in the United States, and that has helped gain the film something of a cult following, at least amongst those interested in director Jim Sharman's work.