Bite Size: Lady, Stay Dead (1981)

Despite writer/director Terry Bourke’s often being credited with the first Australian horror film (1973’s Night Of Fear) and his early adopter status for the government funding that would kickstart the Ozploitation wave, Lady, Stay Dead didn’t have a huge theatrical release at home or abroad. It did have a pair of mid 80s video releases, getting somewhat lost in the shuffle of the slasher boom, but doing respectably enough to stay in circulation.

Gordon Mason (Chard Hayward) is a caretaker and groundskeeper on the Gold Coast. He doesn’t have much of a life, his sparse apartment decorated with posters and clippings of singer and actress Marie (Deborah Coulls). His hobbies basically boil down to a pile of red flags, from dancing around in a Speedo to Marie’s records, to making out with a life size love doll he calls by her name.

This would be enough for a restraining order in and of itself, but he’s Marie’s actual handyman. She lives and works out of a gorgeous seaside villa, and apparently no one bothered to do a background check. He peeps on her nude swims in the pool, and is constantly lurking underfoot regardless if she’s on a date or shooting a commercial on the property. When she decides to do some aerobics on her private beach, Mason masturbates while spying on her, visions of bound and gagged women dancing through his head.

Not that Marie notices. Despite her public image of elegant beauty and romantic love songs, off camera she’s quite the diva. She screams at her agent, barks orders at the staff and refuses to work past noon. This doesn’t line up with Mason’s obsessive image of her as a compliant feminine ideal, and when her ire is directed at him one too many times, the collapse of his fantasy leads to sexual assault and a brutal murder when she doesn’t accept his violent violation as a sign they were fated to be together.

Just to tie up loose ends, he murders her lone neighbor, Mr. Shepard (Les Foxcroft), and poisons his pet dog. What Gordon Mason wasn’t counting on was that Marie’s equally beautiful sister, Jenny (Louise Howitt) was scheduled to house sit while Marie was away on location. The cycle of romantic idealization and violent fantasy begins again, that maybe Jenny will be “different”.

Lady, Stay Dead spends its first third in sleazy slasher territory, aping the misogyny coated mean spiritedness of Don’t Answer The Phone or Maniac, but hemisphere swapping urban streets for sunny seaside isolation. The concept itself is a workable one, but the balance between characters is off.

Gordon is revealed to be unhinged almost immediately, which kneecaps anything resembling narrative tension. Nothing good can possibly come of his proximity to the imperious and bratty Marie, yet the film kills time with scenes meant to be character development that don’t add any real dimension to either character.

He stays impossibly crazy, she stays impossibly bitchy and within the first half an hour she meets her doom at the bottom of a fishtank. Mr. Shepard was the only person Marie treated kindly, and the only character painted in a remotely sympathetic light, and yet he too is rapidly dispatched, removing the escalated stakes of a possible savior or a witness to the crime.

The arrival of the unknowing Jenny almost forces the film to start over from scratch, abandoning its slasher guise for a home invasion thriller. Louise Howitt’s Jenny is allowed a warmer demeanor and a bit of final girl ready pluck, but the film’s narrative orbit again seesaws completely out of alignment. The audience knows a lot more than Jenny does, and waiting for her to figure it out feels like Lady, Stay Dead is killing time while deciding what exactly what kind of film it wants to be.

Daytime horror is always a tricky business, and the film’s inconsistent perspective doesn’t help. Bathed in golden light and hampered by repetitive music cues that tell the audience how they should feel without having shown them much to evoke the desired emotions, it all starts to fly a bit too close to the soap opera sun, a tonal mismatch with the vicious opening act.

Only when night falls does the film really gain any momentum, abandoning any real attempt at anything that resembles logical human behavior, but strangely better off for it. Mason brings Jenny flowers and take out, then decides to menace her not via any of the things she now knows he’s done, but by playing around with a lightswitch. Rather than climb through the window he’s smashed, he grabs a chainsaw from the shed and cuts a hole in the wall.

When the police finally arrive, they promptly blame Marie’s death on her nude sunbathing, and casually offer Jenny a cigarette, confident Gordon won’t come into the house despite the giant hole in the wall. There’s molotov cocktails, more resurrections than Jason and a completely unnecessary fire stunt that likely ate a sizable chunk of the film’s budget. A movie has definitely moved into delightfully trashy B film territory when things have gotten so ridiculous that even the frustrated heroine screams “DO something, you fuckwit!”

It’s unfortunate that the final blast of wackiness comes in far too late, the various segments of the film never quite gelling into a satisfying whole. There’s no third act payoff for the film’s early going, making sitting through it feel superfluous. You could easily watch the last 35 minutes of the film without any context whatsoever and still be able to follow events to the minor degree they’re intended to connect. In fact, doing so would probably be a far more satisfying viewing experience.