VALERIE BEARD

EVIL ANGELS/A CRY IN THE DARK

Directed by Fred Schepisi (AFI)

FILM INFORMATION

Writing credits Fred Schepisi Robert Caswell
Novel John Bryson

Cast

Meryl Streep Lindy Chamberlain
Sam Neill Michael Chamberlain
Dale Reeves Aiden 6 years
David Hoflin Aiden 8 years
Jason Reason Aiden 11 years
Michael Wetter Reagan 4 years
Kane Barton Reagan 6 years
Trent Roberts Reagan 9 years
Lauren Shepherd Azaria
Bethany Ann Prickett Azaria
Alison O'Connell Azaria
Aliza Dason Azaria
Jane Coker Kahlia newborn
Rae-Leigh Henson Kahlia 18 months
Nicolette Minster Kahlia 4 years
Brian James Cliff Murchison
Dorothy Alison Avis Murchison
Maurie Fields Barrett
Peter Hosking Macknay
Matthew Barker O'Loughlin
Bruce Kilpatrick Peter Dean
Charles ‘Bud' Tingwell Muirhead
Bruce Myles Barker
Neil Fitzpatrick Phillips
Dennis Miller Sturgess
Lewis Fitz-Gerald Tipple
Brendan Higgins Kirkham
Ian Swan Cavanagh
Robert Wallace Pauling
Sandy Gore Joy Kuhl
Kevin Miles Professor Cameron
Edgar Metcalfe Dr. Brown
Gary Files Professor Chaikin
Peter Aanensen Sims
Jon Finlayson Professor Boettcher
David Ravenswood Professor Nairn
Roderick Williams Les Harris
Jury members
Eve Godly
Reg Evans
Douglas Hedge
James Wright
Luciano Catenacci
Bill Johnston
Robin Dene
Geoffrey O'Connell
Michael Croft
George Viskich
Merrin Canning
Valma Pratt
Burt Cooper Golligan
Mervyn Drake Gilroy
Maureen Edwards (unaccredited)
Deborra-Lee Furness Magazine Reporter
Bill Garner Mark Furnell
Vincent Gil Roff
Ian Gilmour John Buckland
Reg Gorman Mr. Whittaker
Kym Gyngell Actor
Frankie J. Holden Leslie Thompson
Jim Holt John Eldridge
John Howard Lyle Morris
Debra Lawrence Sally Lowe
Mark Little Constable Morris
Andrew Maj Student
Tony Martin Lincoln
Bill McCluskey Greg Lowe
Ian McFadyen Attorney General
Mark Mitchell Schoolteacher
Glenn Robbins Young father
Tim Robertson Wallace
Patsy Stephen Anne Houghton
Nick Tate Charlwood
Executive producers Yoram Globus Menahem Golan
Production Verity Lambert Roy Stevens
Original music Bruce Smeaton
Cinematography Ian Baker
Editing Jill Bilcock
Casting Rhonda Schepisi
Production design Wendy Dickson George Liddle
Costume design ruce Finlayson
Sound Department Tim Chau Terry Rodman
1st assistant camera Geoffrey Hall Leigh McKenzie
Electrician John Lee
Gaffer Mick Morris
2nd assistant camera Peter White
Warner Bros.
A Cannon Entertainment, Inc. Globus Production in association with Cinema Verity Ltd.


Director Filmography
Fierce Creatures 1997
I.Q. 1994
Six Degrees of Separation 1993
Mr. Baseball 1992
Russia House, The 1990
Cry in the Dark 1988
Roxanne 1987
Plenty 1985
Iceman 1984
Barbarosa 1982
Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The 1978
Devil's Playground, The 1976
Libido 1973 (segment Priest, The)
EVIL ANGELS had a speaking cast of 350 and nearly 4,000 extras
The film was shot in Melbourne studios, on location in Darwin and at Ayers Rock (Uluru).
The film was released in 1988, 8 years after Azaria's death.
Release dates
Australia & USA 4/11/88
France 17/5/89
Finland & Sweden 19/5/89
West Germany 25/5/89
Grossed $6.908 million (USA)
Above information taken from http://www.pb.com.au/pb/homes/8963.htm
Evil Angels has its own web site. It includes several positive amateur reviews.
315 visitors to the site voted it as a ‘good movie'.
External reviews include:
FIND-A-VIDEO findavideo.com
Positive
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES www.suntimes.com
Full and positive
WASHINGTON POST www.washington post.com
Feminist argument
Recommended Reading

Australian Film 1978-1994 Edited by Scott Murray. Melbourne. Oxford University Press in association with The Australian Film Commission and Cinema Papers.

This valuable resource chronicles the feature films in Australia in this almost twenty-year period and presents a critical discussion about each.

Felicity Collin's (Cinema Papers) review of Evil Angels given within this text suggests that the film functions as an avenging angel.

Three other films within the text are compared to Evil Angels:

Razorback (1984 Russell Mulcahy) suggests Helen Barlow is a mix of Jaws (1975 Spielberg), Evil Angels, Deliverance (1972 Boorman) and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919 Weine). The Angels comparison is made because a razorback in outback Australia abducts a young boy.

Now and Forever (1983 Adrian Carr), a story of a wrongful rape conviction reviewed by Scott Murray is equated with Evil Angels in its condemnation of the jury system in Australia.

With Prejudice (1982 Ebsen Storm) also reviewed by Scott Murray questions the jury system, but Murray suggests that With Prejudice is purely propagandist, whereas Angels explores society's participation in the miscarriage of justice.

Cinema Papers reviews

‘The Making of Evil Angels', Philippa Hawker, no. 70, November 1988, pp. 8-13

‘Evil Angels', a review by Felicity Collins, no. 71, January 1989, pp. 55-56

‘Fred Schepisi: Pushing the Boundaries', a career interview with the director by Scott Murray, no. 80, August 1990, pp. 28-42


CRITICAL REVIEW

A Cry In The Dark also known as Evil Angels relates one of the most bizarre murder cases of recent Australian history in cinematic form. On a cool spring night in 1980 from a campsite at Ayers Rock a nine-week old baby disappeared. The distraught mother claimed that baby Azaria was taken by a dingo foraging for food. After a police search failed to discover a body, the Chamberlain family fell under suspicion. Although they were exonerated by an initial inquest, public opinion fuelled by a media frenzy of inaccurate rumor would not let the matter rest. Local police gathered forensic evidence for a second inquest. On the strength of their findings, Lindy was charged with murder, found guilty in a court of law and imprisoned for life. Her husband Michael was found guilty as an accessory after the fact.1 Media coverage persisted however as did claims by some notary figures of a huge miscarriage of justice. Public opinion became divided and more than 100,000 Australians signed a petition on Lindy's behalf. Five years after Azaria's disappearance a British climber fell to his death from Ayers Rock. Lindy's testimony rested heavily on the detailed description of a matinee jacket that had never been found. As police were searching for the climber's body, they stumbled across a matinee jacket matching the description. Lindy's evidence could no longer be discounted. After serving three and a half years of her sentence she was released from jail. Lindy and Michael launched an appeal and in 1988, three judges on Australia's Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal exonerated the Chamberlains of all charges.

In 1985, John Bryson's book Evil Angels captured worldwide attention and critical acclaim. A former lawyer, Bryson began researching the book when court proceedings had only just begun. It took him four years to write it. When the book was released Lindy Chamberlain was still in jail. He does not claim that the book had great influence on public opinion, yet there can be little doubt that it did in fact carry enormous impact, not least in giving proof of spurious evidence, dubious forensic science and media manipulation. Interestingly, he did not envisage the story as being suitable for translation to the screen.

A review in The Washington Post described the story as "so moving, so disturbing, that the book holds the reader in a kind of spell of suspense and pity." The film does the same thing. The consummate skills of the two main stars in the movie, Meryl Streep and Sam Neill are beyond question. In preparation for their roles, they spent a considerable amount of time with the Chamberlains. They played them sympathetically but realistically. Streep captured Lindy's apparent lack of emotion and deep religious belief,2 both of which worked against her in the public's eyes. Neill encompassed Michael's initial brave buoyancy in the face of tragedy which turned to anger and frustration as the stress mounted and confusion and despair as he lost hope. Both actors seemed to effectively portray false media perceptions whilst simultaneously revealing private realities and inner turmoil.

Schepisi acknowledges that when he was first approached about the project he had reservations. Lindy was still in jail and he was concerned that a film could do further harm. He claims however that he eventually realized "there was some deep-seated need for evil in the minds of all of us."3 The story had to be told the public needed to see the results of what he described as "group emotional madness". Indeed it is this witch-hunt aspect of the case that Schepisi manages to portray so well. Almost every member of the audience watching the film had been part of the debate. They had had either helped fuel the fire or attempted to douse it with a droplet of water. The unique backdrop of the Australian wilderness and arguably its most famous scenic attraction Uluru was fronted by a mundane ordinariness of everyday living that embraced gossip and scandal with frightening fervor. The only people who didn't appear ordinary were the Chamberlains who continued to fight the good fight as it were. If Lindy had confessed to murder under diminished responsibility due to post-natal depression she probably would have got away with it and become a popular media personality to boot. Neither of them ever wavered from their story. No motive for murder was ever brought forward, no weapon produced. Aboriginal trackers who live in the area have always known that a dingo is capable of carrying off a baby. O'Regan claims that ‘the documentary is never far away in Australian cinema'. 4A Cry In The Dark had a documentary feel; in fact it almost was a documentary. It is most interesting that Schepisi used the vehicle of naturalism, that is to say portraying realistic people in recognizable situations, yet the circumstances of the story were totally bizarre and the fictitious rumors (such as Azaria meaning ‘sacrifice in the wilderness') even more so. Ironically the truth was categorically and consistently denied. It took a novel and a film, the non-real, to help convince of the real. Schepisi constantly reminded the audience of the extraordinary misinformation that pervaded trips home from collecting the grocery shopping or interrupted dinner parties. He portrayed the media and the courts as instruments of systematic harassment.5 He wanted to tell the world that gross miscarriages of justice could happen anywhere, to anyone.

It could be said that the appearance of Meryl Streep's name on the billboards was all that was required to sell A Cry In The Dark and to some extent this may be true.6 It could equally well be argued that Streep's inclusion devalued Australian actors however, why get an American to play an Australian? English producer Verity Lambert ‘knew instinctively' that she wanted Meryl Streep to play Lindy, and one cannot really deny the effectiveness of her instinct. Streep was an ‘actor's actor' and the film an ‘actor's picture'.7 Nevertheless its inclusion in a spate of commercial successes probably owes much to the performances of both stars and good direction, although I intend to discuss this further towards the conclusion of this essay. Of course there was no need to arouse public interest, certainly in Australia at any rate. It actually helped Australian cinema in its recognition as an international cinema, and was one of the celebrated ‘revival' or ‘new wave' movies being heralded at the time. 8 The film enjoyed significant box office returns.9 Also, when production began Lindy was still a convicted criminal, by its release she was free, this would have added momentum to its popularity. In some way the viewing public feel exonerated when an expose film is made and embraced as honorable. The film is still readily available in video stores, its title still well recognized, its star performances regularly commented on. It has almost become an Australian classic. Schepisi drew on a news story dependent on the Australian landscape for its essence.10

Fred Schepisi first came to international attention via the International Film Festival of La Rochelle in France. Prior to A Cry In The Dark he found critical success with The Devils Playground (1976) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), again, both have a strong Australian essence. These three memorable films display his talent as auteur as well as director. He co-wrote A Cry with Robert Caswell. It seems that Schepisi excels when he ‘goes local' in order to ‘go international' and makes films that couldn't be made anywhere else.11 He feels comfortable working in Hollywood and his credits vary enormously from light comedies such as Fierce Creatures (1997), to thrillers (The Russia House 1990) and psychological dramas (Plenty 1985), but it is perhaps his talent for placing ‘Australianicity' onto the screen that sets him apart.12

English producer Verity Lambert began her career in television with the enormously successful Dr Who series. She owns her own production company "Cinema Verity"13. Her more recent television credits include Jonathan Creek (1997 BBC). She felt Bryson's book had enormous screen potential. 14

"My first thought was of the witches of Salem, and how something so similar could happen in a civilized nation in the 1980s," she says.

She chose Schepisi and Streep, and in consultation with them chose Neill for the supporting role of Michael. Cinematographer Ian Baker has worked extensively with Schepisi. This seems to have been a film of commitment for virtually everyone involved in it.

Evil Angels was released simultaneously in Australia and America (4/11/88) and grossed $6.908 million at the box office (USA). It enjoyed international release just over six months later in France, Sweden, Finland and West Germany. 15The movie was embraced by the public and lauded by the critics. Oscar nominations for best actress as well as best editing sound and music score were unsuccessful, as were several Golden Globe nominations. However Streep's nomination at Cannes for best actress was successful, and the Australian Film Institute awarded Meryl Streep best actress, Sam Neill best actor, Fred Schepisi and Robert Caswell best screenplay and Verity Lambert best film. The film also won the Political Film Society award for expose. 16

Situating this film in relation to Australian cinema or International cinema is not easy, as the film stands alone in many ways. Whilst there is a distinct feel of Australia geographically (Uluru) and zoologically (dingo), the story is not about Australia as such, it is about a witch-hunt. The film is actually quite anti-Australian as it exposes an appalling media circus leading to a hate campaign. Australians weren't prepared to acknowledge that a dingo might carry off a baby. The prosecution expected the world to believe it was more likely that a mother would murder her baby at a crowded campsite than one of its cute icons would obey its predatory instinct. And it did! It could be argued that Schepisi was deliberately revealing an alternative aspect of Australian ugliness that O'Regan claims is a regular part of Australian film culture.17 However, in this case a middle class audience could not claim that it was ‘not like that' because the events were undeniable. The film may have been local but the news story was international. The acting and production team was also international, as was its success. Obviously the limits of language and colloquialism did not apply in this case. I would argue that as good as Evil Angels might have been it was the historic event that made it a great film. If the story had been a work of fiction it would have seemed ridiculous. If it had been a documented event that happened a century ago (in the vein of Gallipolli) it would have been marked down as a well made film of tragic nostalgia. Its contemporaneity was its most outstanding feature and remains so. Comments from the producer, director and main stars seem mainly concerned with serving individual justice and righting a wrong or at least exposing it. Similarly audience comments commend the filmmaking and acting but express indignation that it could ever have happened.

However, the fact that this was an 80s ‘project' (and that is the term frequently used by producer, director and actors) is inescapable. The film must be seen as being created within the climate of economic tax benefits. One would have to cynically question whether or not it would have been a ‘story that had to be told' in quite such elite cinematic terms (using Streep particularly) if it had happened in another decade. In a similar vein, the televisual climate of the time would have affected the film's impact, because the Chamberlains were virtually victims of trial by television. The film was almost an extension of what had been seen on the small screen in homes around the world, which was partly why Streep and Neill's performances were so convincing. They looked, sounded and behaved like the real characters. Art house Picnic it was not, blockbuster Dundee not quite, but phenomenon of Australian history and Australian film making undoubtedly.18


1 He was given a suspended sentence of 18 months in order to enable him to care for his children.

2 The Chamberlain's were devout 7th Day Adventists, Michael was a pastor at the time of Azaria's death.

3 Amazon.com

4 O'Regan, T, 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London. P. 238.

5 ibid. P 70.

6 Although it could also be said that public opinion was tiring of her a little, comments such as ‘not another wig and another bloody accent' were common on radio and TV chat shows.

7 O'Regan, T, 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London. P.205

8 ibid. P.13. Arguably Streep's inclusion in the cast along with international media interest prior to the film's release would have helped in this regard.

9 ibid, p.86. O'Regan is quoting Australian Film Commission, 1991-10.

10 ibid, p.66, 102.

11 ibid, p. 53

12 ibid, p. 61.

13 Almost certainly a wordplay on Cinema verite.

14 Amazon.com

15 France 17/5/89 Finland and Sweden 19/5/89 West Germany 25/5/89

16 Amazon.com

17O'Regan, T. Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London and New York. P. 248 Not vulgarity, but religious intolerance.

18 Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975 Weir).