Color, 1980, 101 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by Stephen Wallace
Starring Bryan Brown, Max Phipps, Dennis Miller, Gary Waddell
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Umbrella Entertainment (DVD) (Australia R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Something of a notorious shocker in Australia at the time of its release but mostly unknown everywhere else, the gritty prison drama Stir pulled no punches with its depiction of brutal life behind bars and the riot those conditions inspire. The screenplay was written (and novelized) by Bob Jewson, an inmate who had firsthand experience seeing the famous 1974 prison riots in Bathurst, South Wales, which served as the obvious source material here. Shot inside a real abandoned prison and very realistic compared to most Hollywood films before it (though indies like Short Eyes were comparable), Stir now plays well even after the more extreme excesses of TV's Oz and benefits from a strong ensemble cast headed by a very committed Bryan Brown before his temporary move to Hollywood.
After being brutally stripped and beaten by guards in the intense opening sequence, habitual criminal China Jackson (Brown) ends up in the slammer again three years later and isn't exactly a favorite among the guards given his attempt to blow the whistle on these institutional abuses. The prisoners respect him though, while one of the guards, Norton (Phipps), is now looking to help Jackson and atone for his past brutalities against him during his previous sentence. Meanwhile the authority-sanctioned violence against the prisoners ratchets up, leading to a protracted explosion of a revolt that will shake the system to its core.
At the time of its release, this was quite the splash of cold water in the face with its extensive profanity, casual nudity and sexuality, and matter-of-fact violence. The attempt to go as realistic as possible pays off all the way, even as the film dips into occasional stylization like the heavy blue tint placed over the opening sequence to differentiate it from the main story. The best prison films give the viewer a "you are there" sense of what life would like behind bars with no control over your own movements, and this one achieves that extremely well with a gradual escalation in its intensity before the inevitable uprising starts.
Initially released on Australian VHS, Stir made the jump to DVD locally from Umbrella Entertainment featuring a new retrospective featurette, "Tales from the Inside" (50m49s) by Mark Hartley, with most of the major participants here including director Stephen Wallace, Brown, Jewson, and actor Gary Waddell. It's a fascinating look at the film including the difficulty finding a proper location (which almost scuttled the whole thing) and the brief, real time behind bars many of the actors spent to prepare for their roles. The same featurette is carried over for the film's 2023 Blu-ray release from Severin Films, the first time it's been out in the U.S. apparently, and the transfer looks quite solid thanks to a new 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive at The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Audio options include DTS-HD MA English 5.1 and 2.0 mixes with optional English SDH subtitles; it isn't a film that calls out for a ton of surround activity, but things do become very active and immersive in the last half hour. You also get two commentaries, the first featuring Wallace, Brown, Hartley, producer Richard Brennan, and cinematographer Geoff Burton, with more detail about the outfitting of the prison location, the film's reception upon its release, the casting of the various prisoners, and lots more. The second track features crime film and literature historian Andrew Nette, who focuses more on the real-life events that inspired the screenplay, the impact of the hearings on the Australian penal system, and Jewson's life story. "A Career on the Fringe" (24m54s) features Australian theater historian Robert Reid and critic Paul Harris analyzing the career of late actor Phil Motherwell, who had a lengthy and diverse career across multiple media. Then you get Wallace's mini-feature made before Stir, 1977's The Love Letters from Teralba Road (50m9s), about a man named Len (Brown again) who writes a series of letters in an attempt to win back his wife, Barbara (Kris McQuade), after beating her in a drunken rage. The film is taken from a dated master but is a welcome addition here as it showcases the director and star honing their craft on a very different kind of project. Wallace also provides a video introduction explaining how was inspired by a stack of letters written by a working-class abusive husband, as well as the reception the film got on the festival circuit. Finally the trailer for Stir wraps up the disc.
Reviewed on November 23, 2023