Patrick (1978)

Patrick first published by

Patrick opens not with sights, but with sounds. First a strange staticky noise like electricity, and then the sound of a car parking and approaching voices. An eye opens in close-up, as a male voice is heard asking, “What happened to that lunatic son of yours, anyway?” – and it is almost as though that initial sound of sparking, arcing power was what the lunatic son, Patrick (Robert Thompson), had been dreaming before the arrival of his mother and her lover awoke him. Patrick (Robert Thompson) is now sitting up in bed, craning to hear the voices through the wall, a halogen heater prominent on a table by the window. We then cut to a shot that shows clearly that with director Richard Franklin, who would go on to helm the brilliant Hitchcockian thrillers Roadgames (1981) and Psycho II (1983), we are in the hands of a genuine master: like an intradiegetic fisheye lens, the metal ball atop a bedpost offers the distorted reflection of a couple having sex on the bed, even as the ball rhythmically bangs into the wall on whose other side, also visible as though in split screen, Patrick sits blankly listening. After this complicated shot, which dizzyingly combines both a mother’s sexuality and a son’s skewed psyche, the couple goes for a post-coital bath together, only to be burnt and fatally electrocuted when Patrick throws the heater into the water.

It is a doozy of a primal scene, introducing us to a protagonist who is not only an arrested, murderous Norman Bates figure with a twisted relationship to both his mother and electricity, but also, significantly, a person we associate with open, blankly staring eyes and bed. Once the film’s narrative proper begins, Patrick has been in bed, open-eyed, for three long years, deeply comatose and to all intents and purposes braindead. So vegetative is Patrick’s state, bedbound in the Roget Clinic and kept alive only by a machine, that one doctor refers, with cruel wit, to the patient’s latest nurse, Kathy Jacquard (Susan Penhaligon), as a ‘gardener’. Yet as Kathy treats Patrick with kindness, she begins to get the uncanny impression that despite the fact the lights are not on in this lifeless body, there is still someone very much at home there – someone as sexually immature and jealous and destructive as the previous occupant, and someone with Psycho-kinetic powers that make him, for all his immobility, very dangerous to anyone he perceives as a threat or a rival.

The USP of this ESP-inflected film is that it is a slasher whose killer never talks, never gestures, never (until the very end) even stirs from his hospital bed – although he does take over an electric typewriter for communication, other objects for weapons, and other people’s minds for use as puppets in a recurring psychodrama of burning, drowning and electrocuting to get his own childish way. Through all these horror elements there runs an ongoing debate – conducted chiefly by the clinic’s owner Dr Roget (Robert Helpmann), the stern Matron Cassidy (Julia Blake) and the neurosurgeon Dr Brian Wright (Bruce Barry) – about the ethics that operate around patients who have crossed the threshold between life and death. Meanwhile Kathy must work out to what degree her marriage to Ed (Rod Mullinar), long since hanging terminally in the balance, is worth keeping artificially alive, or even resurrecting. 

Written by Everett DeRoche, whose name can be found on the scripts for a run of the very finest films of the great Ozploitation era (Long Weekend, 1978; Snapshot, 1979; Harlequin, 1980; Roadgames; Razorback, 1984; Fortress, 1985), Patrick demands a performance from the actor in the titular rôle which is unusually static if no less creepy for that. Meanwhile, through sheer directorial verve – and a bundle of unnerving canted angles, via DP Ellery Ryan, as well as Brian May’s killer score – Franklin brings tension to every scene, as the most helpless and constrained of protagonists seems to be manipulating and influencing everything without so much as lifting a finger. After being celebrated in Mark Hartley’s documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008), Patrick would be remade by Hartley in 2013, with Shari Vinson as Kathy, and it was also an obvious influence on Paddy Breathnach’s coma revenger Freakdog (aka Red Mist, 2008). Such reincarnations seem entirely apt for a film which suggests, at least to those who watch it with eyes wide open, that Patrick can never really die.

Summary: Richard Franklin’s first thriller injects medical ethics with a psychosexual cocktail.

© Anton Bitel