Lady, Stay Dead (1981)

As an Australian I feel kind of duty-bound to cover what I can of our cult-cinema output. Well, that duty has tonight led me again into the land of director Terry Bourke. After the fiasco that is Inn of the Damned I was a bit hesitant to delve there again, but memories of reading about Lady, Stay Dead in Starlog magazine many, many a year ago re-ignited my curiosity. And in the end, this entry in the semi-slasher-thriller pantheon isn't really all that bad. It doesn't go as far as some dark horrors such as I Spit on Your Grave or Maniac, but we do get to spend some quality time with a sweaty, deluded loon for most of the film's running time.

Pretty singer/actress Marie Coleby (Deborah Coulls) has a charmed, affluent life in Sydney. She lives alone in a beach-side mansion with her dog and doting neighbour, old Billy Shepherd (Les Foxcroft) helps her out from time to time. She also has a penchant for swimming in the nude - via a body double, I suspect - in her luxury pool. We then met her gardener, the bearded Gordon Mason (Chard Hayward). Our first introduction to Mister Mason is in women's undies, embracing and muttering to a life-size doll in bed. By the looks of the photos on his wall, we quickly understand that Mason is obsessed, in a distinctly unhealthy way, with Marie. Marie continues to go on her bitchy way, oblivious, although she is nice to old Billy. During a photo-shoot at her mansion, Marie yells at Mason to clean up the mess left behind. Later she lets Billy know she's going on a trip for a while, and that her sister will be coming to mind the house and dog. Going to exercise at the beach, she doesn't realise Mason's watching her from afar, masturbating at the sight of his obsession doing stretches while he imagines images of naked women being tied up, or fondling themselves.

Later as Gordon is doing some chainsawing, Marie berates him for making noise while she's on the phone, and also commands him to take some rubbish with him. As she prepares to leave for the airport, she doesn't realise that Gordon's entered the house. He's offended at being talked to like a child. She screams at him to get out, and that he's an idiot for bringing mud into the house. Gordon snaps, saying that Marie was meant to be different, not like all the other 'dumb housewives.' Things soon go from bad to worse, as Marie threatens to call the cops. Gordon pins her to a couch, and the frightened girl offers to kiss him to calm him down. Her revulsion gets the better of her though, and she soon spits in Gordon's face. This causes him to go off the deep end, and rape Marie over a sofa. Meanwhile we see that Billy is walking her dog down at the beach, so there are no witnesses. Afterwards, Gordon tries to say that he's there anytime for her if she likes it rough, unlike her soft yuppie boyfriends. The distraught girl screams that she's going to turn him in to the police, to which Gordon responds by picking her up and lowing her head-down into her fishtank. After a few minutes of struggling, it's all over. Completely crazed, Gordon begs the coprse to wake up, but she's pretty darned dead.

Billy returns with the dog and discovers Gordon carrying Marie's body - now wrapped in garbage bags - out for some sort of disposal. It's pretty clear to the old man what's happened, and we quickly cut away from his fate. Gordon tries to poison the dog but it's wary of the murderer, and runs away to the beach. Before any peace can return to Gordon's life, a new resident enters the house of death. Marie's older sister, Jenny Nolan (Louise Howitt) has come to mind the place while she was away. Wondering where her sister was, Jenny takes a shower, while the paranoid Gordon enters with his hedge-clippers to check her out. Before he can commit more mayhem, he spots Marie's dog yapping around the place, and pursues it back to the beach. He eventually shoots it off-screen. Mystified by her sister's absence, Jenny takes a walk and finds the dead dog at the beach. She runs to Billy's place and yells at the seemingly-sleeping man through his window. He doesn't answer, and Jenny leaves. Of course, we see the bloody wound on the dead man's head and see that Gordon has just arranged his cadaver that way. Gordon then decides to re-appear as the innocent gardener, and Jenny, though wary, is friendly to him and even has a coffee with him outside. He agrees to retrieve the dog and though grateful, Jenny can tell that there's something awry with this overly-attentive man. That night, Jenny discovers bits of seaweed on the floor and Marie's earrings in the fish-tank. She soon puts two and two together, and rushes back over to Billy's place.

Soon enough she discovers, with a scream, the old man's body hanging in his garage. Jenny dashes back to her house and quickly gets a call through to the beach security before Gordon turns up, with groceries and flowers, and cuts the phone line. Gordon tries to keep up the friendly facade of wanting to have dinner with her, but soon realises that Jenny won't be fooled and has found Billy's corpse. Turning psychotic, Gordon shows her Marie's corpse in the back of his truck. Jenny screams in an anguished state, but she soon comes to her senses enough to arm herself with a thick metal rod. The lunatic tries to break in a few times but gets progessively more injured by the feisty woman. Finally he begins to cut his way in with his trusty chainsaw, but the two security guards show up. Officers Rex Dunbar (James Elliott) and Clyde Collings (Roger Ward) try to calm Jenny down, but she's shattered by her sister's death. Dunbar goes out to find Gordon and ends up beaten into a semi-conscious pulp by him. Collings tell Jenny that Gordon's been in trouble with other women before, but they've never pressed charges, and that he's never gone this far before. Gordon begins to step up his siege and Collings and Jenny try to escape. Dunbar ends up burned alive by a botton of lighted petrol rolled at him. Jenny finds Marie's corpse and cries again at her senseless death. Collings, in a rage at the agonising death of his colleague, chases Gordon into the swimming pool and appears to get the upper hand, killing the maniac.

Jenny runs away to the beach and collapsing on the road, is relieved when the patrol car pulls up. Of course, all is not as it seems and it's Gordon at the wheel, with the corpses of Marie and now Collings in the back seat. He picks Jenny up and begins throttling her, but is suddenly aghast when he sees visions of Marie in his arms. Letting her drop to the bitumen, Gordon begins ranting and raving about Marie, and how he never meant to hurt her and still loves her. Lost in his delerium, Gordon's hit by a passing motorcyclist, both parties flying through the air. Gordon crashes back into the police car, just as another two cops drive onto the scene. Will the crazed gardener recover and kill his final victims, or is it the end for him and his reign of terror?

I don't quite know what it is, but there's something I quite enjoyed about Lady, Stay Dead, other than the fairly charmless title. Maniac-like, we know who's doing the killings and he's a socially inept, sweaty loser rather than an unstoppable force. He does seem to have it together enough to have some sexual experiences with bored housewives, though. Sex scenes, the body count and blood and gore-effects are kept to a minimum, although there are some flashes of exploitative nudity when Mason's remembering the 'other women'. There also seems to be a body double on hand for Deborah Coulls, as we never see her nude and facing the camera in her few nude scenes. Such is this type of film-making. There is a genuine sense of suspense as the film moves along, and we do wonder who indeed is going to survive Mason's insanity. It's kind of a pity it becomes a multi-player shootout at the end, I would have preferred a cat-and-mouse game between Gordon and Jenny to be the only focus, but it's still a lot of fun. Chard Hayward plays a appropriately perverted and crazed murderer, before they all started wise-cracking or coming back as re-animated zombies. Strangely enough, there is something lost and pathetic about him that makes you feel some degree of sympathy towards the character. Deborah Coulls plays Marie as the beautiful, spoiled bitch who at least has enough heart to be nice to her old neighbour Billy. She certainly doesn't deserve being raped and drowned in a fishtank. Louise Howitt as Jenny is probably the best actor in the cast, and holds up the film for the most part. Her genuine anguish at the loss of her sister is actually quite sad, and she makes a nicely determined-to-survive 'final girl'.

Although a low-budget production, Lady, Stay Dead has some nice touches courtesy of cinematographer Ray Henman. The New South Wales beach scenery is beautiful - I would love to own that house - and there some interesting shots such as looking up through a telephone as Jenny's dialling it in a panic, or following a rolling molotov cocktail before it explodes in a hapless victim's face. Bob Young's persistent, plonking piano score actually suits the proceedings with it's mournful droning. The easy-listening theme song of "Loving from a Distance" - heard many times, I must add, does suit Gordon's creepy nature and easily becomes the song of a stalker. Perhaps the overall nature of the film is a bit dubious towards women at times, but Gordon is portrayed as so utterly pathetic, and Jenny so sensible and well-balanced, that we viewers - hopefully - will side with the victims. The initial rape scene with Marie is filmed to show how horrible it is for her, and how ugly and digusting the whole experience is, rather than titillating for the assailant.

So if you're in the mood for a vintage Australian sleaze-thriller flick with a dash of slasher in there for good measure, Lady, Stay Dead may well tickle your fancy. Don't expect too much, and you might enjoy your time with this hedge-clipper-wielding, Antipodean nut-job.

© Boris Lugosi, 2010.

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Review written: 02/22/2010 23:01:50