Production company: Secret Picture Productions Pty. Ltd.
Budget: A$370,000 (Oxford), financed by the federal government investment body the Australian Film Commission and G.U.O. Film Distributors. Various Cinema Papers production surveys list the budgt as $350,000.
Locations: Sydney and surrounds, mostly Wattamolla in the Royal National Park near Sydney
Filmed: 1976. Shooting commenced 16th February 1976 and the film was listed as reaching release print stage in the June-July edition of Cinema Papers.
Australian distributor: Greater Union Organisation Film Distributors
Australian release: 24th December, 1976 Rapallo Theatre, Sydney
35mm Panavision Eastmancolor 5247
Running time: 102 mins (Oxford)
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 also noted that it "surprised its detractors by winning two of the main prizes at a festival of science fiction films in Paris".
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 won for 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.
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.
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.
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 a director, is credited as producer on the film but clearly did little to help Sharman reach any kind of narrative coherence.
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. 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.