THE ROLY POLY MAN (1994)

"I gotta tell ya, that giant mud slug threw me a bit. I knew I was up against something strange, but a five hundred pound bloodsucking bean-bag--- Jesus!"

Director: Bill Young
Starring: Paul Chubb, Les Foxcroft, Susan Lyons, Frank Whitten, Peter Braunstein, John Batchelor, Zoe Bertram, Jane Harders, Deborah Kennedy, Jim Pike, Sarah Lambert
Screenplay: Kym Goldsworthy

Synopsis: Unaware that they are under video surveillance, a woman in her underwear and a man wearing a Native American headdress romp in a motel room. Suddenly, the scene turns violent. As the man raises a tomahawk, a truck passes in front of the camera…. The next morning, Sydney-based private investigator Dirk Trent (Paul Chubb) is joined by his technical assistant, Mickey (Les Foxcroft), who brings in the night’s haul of surveillance tapes. As Mickey watches his favourite TV program, The Big Woozy Show, starring Woozy Bear, Trent inspects the tapes, staring in horror at the scene in the motel room. Trent alerts the police, but no sign of violence is found in the room in question. Trent’s mortal enemy, Detective Tom McKenzie (Peter Braunstein), dismisses the scene on the tape as rough sex, and abuses Trent. Still unconvinced, Trent visits Jane Lewis (Jane Harders), who hired him to watch her husband, and is stunned to hear that Tom Lewis sent her a "Dear Jane" fax from Melbourne the night before. Trent visits the morgue, looking for a body that meets the girl’s description, and ends up convincing the lovely Dr Sandra Burnett (Susan Lyons) to let him take her out for drinks. Mickey tracks down the girl in the video, Vicki Lane (Sarah Lambert), who reveals that Tom Lewis is dead. Meanwhile, a fight between two young men ends abruptly when the head of one of them explodes…. Mickey runs the Tom Lewis video through an image enhancer, which shows Lewis clutching his head in agony before it bloodily erupts. Triumphant, Trent and Mickey bring McKenzie to their office. To their dismay, the office has been ransacked, and all of their tapes stolen. Trent responds by getting good and drunk, before staggering off to pick up Sandra. At the morgue, he sees the body of the young man, his brains lying spread out on the table. On impulse, Trent grabs a handful of the bloody mess and stuffs it into his pocket. The ensuing date is not a success…. While he tries to clean his pants, Trent gives the brain matter to Mickey for analysis. He then returns to the motel, and finds a bloodstained feather in the room that was occupied by Tom Lewis and Vicki Lane. Mickey finds a non-human substance in both Lewis’s blood and the young man’s brains. Trent goes to the morgue to take another look at the body, but the State Coroner has collected it; the manner of the collection arouses Sandra’s suspicions. Jane Lewis reveals that her husband had a terminal brain tumour. Trent visits Lewis’s neurosurgeon, Dr Henderson (Frank Whitten), and comes away convinced that the doctor is crazy. Sandra tells Trent and Mickey that it wasn’t the Coroner who collected the young man’s body. The next day, Trent learns that another of Henderson’s patients has died of "head injuries". Mickey is then shattered by news of the death of Siimon Myers, who played Woozy Bear. The death is reported as "peaceful", but a tape made by TV technician Chantal (Deborah Kennedy) shows Woozy staggering around and clutching his head in agony….

Comments: The Roly Poly Man is one of the odder films ever produced under the generally conservative auspices of the New South Wales Film And Television Office. I’ve seen it called "Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid meets Brain Damage", and that probably goes as close as anything could to summing up this bizarre little film, which turns out to be part mystery, part horror film, part film noir spoof, and part gross-out comedy – and occasionally manages to be all of these things at once. The abrupt and bewildering shifts in tone that occur throughout the film may put some people off, but I found them to be one of The Roly Poly Man’s strongest virtues. It’s almost impossible to anticipate what’s going to happen next at any given part of the story; and if you don’t care for a particular plot twist---well, just hang around: there’ll be another one along in a moment. The meaning of the film’s title is not as straightforward as it might at first appear. Although Trent is overweight, and although another character does eventually call him "a roly-poly man", the reference, I think, is to those inflatable punching-bag toys, that stand up again no matter how often you knock them down. Certainly, when we first meet him, Z-grade private investigator Dirk Trent seems like a new definition of the word "loser", spending his days wading through the grime of cheating spouses and insurance fraud, and his nights soaking up a skinful of tequila, until circumstances drop the case of a lifetime into his lap. For the first third of its running time, The Roly Poly Man seems to be purely a take-off of films such as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The film opens with the inevitable hard-bitten voiceover introduction ("I was a no-frills private investigator in a bad suit. I worked the arse-end of the market…."). After that, it comes as no surprise whatsoever that Trent finds a mysterious femme fatale waiting for him in his office, shrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke. Except that the femme fatale in question turns out to be, not a client, but Trent’s ghastly ex-wife, who’s there to leave their swarm of (improbably similarly-aged) children on his hands while she takes off for a dirty weekend with her new boyfriend. Following this, his voiceover lecturing the audience on morality and immorality, Trent begins working his way through the latest collection of covert surveillance videos – while his elderly assistant, Mickey, happily watches and sings along with his hero, Woozy Bear, on the next TV. ("It’s good!" insists Mickey when Trent gives him a pained look.) And so on it goes, with all of the obvious cinematic conventions making their appearance, one after the other – and then being shot down the same way. Screenwriter Kym Goldsworthy also has enormous verbal fun with the traditions of the private eye film, at one point having Trent’s voiceover go spiralling off into a morass of hanging pronouns: "I had a ‘who’ and a ‘how’ but I didn’t have a ‘why’. Maybe I didn’t even have a ‘who’. I couldn’t say for certain how that who did what he did how he did, and why he did what he did how he did…."

The Roly Poly Man abruptly changes direction when both Tom Lewis’s blood and the young man’s brain tissue prove to bear traces of an alien presence ("Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be there, because it’s not human, that’s what it’s not!" explains Mickey gravely). This startling find gives Trent the courage to confess his brain-swiping escapade to Sandra Burnett who, although enraged with him, is sufficiently disturbed by the combination of Mickey’s discovery and the disappearance of the young man’s body from her morgue to join the investigation. The team’s first venture involves the rather rough-and-ready acquisition of the head of the unfortunate Siimon Meyers, aka Woozy Bear, and the further discovery of a slimy, wriggling – thing – amongst Meyers’ puréed grey matter. From this point, the film begins an equally thorough skewering of science fiction and horror movie conventions, sending Trent through the office of wild-eyed neurosurgeon Dr Henderson, who lectures him solemnly on "the brain, God’s most perfect creation" and "the tumour, Nature’s most perfect perversion"; and the equally nutty entomologist, Dr Wauchop, who reels off stories of lost Amazonian tribes and the infamous "Amazonian mud slug", and delivers the ominous news that the creature found in Woozy Bear’s inner workings is just a baby…. (What’s truly sad is that the horror movie clichés that The Roly Poly Man is poking fun at here were collectively recycled with absolute seriousness some three years later in The Relic.) Of course, it doesn’t take much effort to spot that the person responsible for the sudden wave of spontaneous head explosions is a Mad Scientist – or rather, a Mad Doctor (I always like to maintain that distinction); and since out villain is a Doctor, instead of a Scientist, his motive is Love rather than just the age old desire to Tamper In God’s Domain. Henderson’s wife, we learn, is herself suffering from a brain tumour; and the doctor has taken to experimenting on his luckless patients, trying to harness the slugs’ natural activities into therapeutic directions. Unfortunately, however – for all concerned – (i) the slugs are refusing to confine themselves to dining upon the required tumour and blood clot matter; and (ii) they have, in Henderson’s own words, "a startling growth rate"…. These revelations trigger an hilarious sequence in which Trent and Mickey careen around Sydney trying to reach Henderson’s patients before the inevitable happens – and just failing in every case. The situation reaches crisis point when Trent discovers that Sandra, with whom he is falling in love, has herself become one of Henderson’s patients, and is using herself as bait. I won’t give away the film’s ending, but monster lovers be reassured: we do get to see a full-grown "Amazonian mud slug" – although (for obvious reasons) it shows a distinct tendency to lurk in the shadows….

Subtle it ain’t, and it does drag in parts; but nevertheless, The Roly Poly Man is still a pretty funny film; although as you’ve probably already gathered, its particular brand of comedy is definitely not for all tastes. Gross-out humour predominates, with blood and goo being tossed at the audience with such childish glee that it almost becomes inoffensive. Almost. (On the whole, the film expresses the same basic philosophy as Dan Aykroyd did in It Came From Hollywood: "Ack! A brain! Eek! A brain!") That said, I defy any viewer to sit through the "serious slug sucking" scene that precedes "Dirk’s Big Trip" without gagging…. In the spite of all the exploding heads, and flying viscera, and collections of tequila worms, and carving knife brain dissections, The Roly Poly Man is not without a thread of more restrained, occasionally even surreal, humour. Particularly noteworthy are the disclosure of Trent’s secret hobby – building intricate models out of discarded cigarette butts (an occupation he refers to, rather unfortunately, as "butt sculpture" and "fag modelling") - and (one of my favourite scenes in the whole film) the revelation of who really stole the surveillance videos from Trent’s office…. There are also some wonderfully funny contributions from the minor characters – Chantal, the limitlessly pissed-off TV technician, is a gem – and a number of bizarre visual touches lurking in the corners of the frame; most of which, now that I come to think of it, involve alcohol. For example, there’s Dr Henderson’s office drink caddy – a converted medical instrument steriliser – and Chantal’s "special": a Cooper’s Dark Ale with a pink parasol resting in it. Best of all, however (for me, anyway), is when the film suddenly segues into a wholly unexpected and affectionate parody of the Pink Room sequence in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which the volume of the bar’s resident band (Exploding White Mice – yes!!) forces several scenes to be played out with subtitles. And if you look closely, you might notice that those subtitles aren’t entirely accurate. For instance, Trent doesn’t really sum up his mortal enemy, Detective Tom McKenzie, with the line, "Yes, and I’m not too fond of the chap either"….

As with the majority of Australian films, the casting in The Roly Poly Man is a case of "round up the usual suspects"; the film is full of people that you’ll probably recognise, even if you can’t quite put a name to them. While the performances, in keeping with the film’s overall tone, tend to be fairly broad, they are also on the whole very good. The ever-reliable Paul Chubb adds another memorable character to his diverse and still growing résumé, managing to make Trent likeable in spite of his crudity, his drinking habits, and his utter disregard for the basic tenets of personal hygiene. (You certainly wouldn’t guess it from what you see here, but Chubb has a substantial background in children’s television! – to which the "Woozy Bear" subplot is an in-joke reference. Trent’s "disposal" of his brood of children is – rather more sinisterly – probably another one.) Unexpected touches in the script flesh out our unlikely hero (he starts out by interrupting his own purple-prosed voiceover to express a desire to "get his poetry published", and ends up by wistfully picturing a future spent in retirement on the Central Coast, in company with "Spider", a, uh, "friend" he met in prison….), and keep him watchable and sympathetic despite the repellant nature of most of his surface characteristics. Some of the best performances in The Roly Poly Man come in the film’s minor roles, most notably from Deborah Kennedy as Chantal; Jim Pike as Trent’s long-suffering bartender (and keeper of the tequila worms), Tony; and John Batchelor as Axel, Sandra Burnett’s unspeakably creepy morgue assistant. (At one point, Axel wanders through the morgue with a woman’s rigor mortis-stiffened corpse, which is clad in a wedding dress, over one shoulder, and with a bottle of champagne in his free hand, whistling "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" as he goes.) Another thing to look for is yet another cameo appearance from (now former) ABC newsreader Richard Morecroft, who gets to announce first Woozy Bear’s "peaceful" death, and then the fate of Elvis Presley’s Comeback Tour….

Perhaps the film’s most pleasant surprise, however, is the utterly charming performance of Les Foxcroft as Trent’s elderly ex-boxer technical assistant and computer expert, Mickey. Part ‘Q’ and part Macgyver, Mickey proves a dab hand at whipping up scientific equipment from whatever he finds lying around in the streets, finally producing "just a sort of a thermo-phased infra-red electron microscope" with which he is able to confirm the presence of the same non-human substance in the remains of the first two victims. ("Put your eye up to this peephole thing," Mickey explains, taking pity on his gob-smacked employer, "and it makes stuff look real big.") One of the film’s most satisfying moments comes towards the end, when Mickey charges in to rescue the seemingly doomed Trent, clad in his own version of Sigourney Weaver’s body armour from Aliens, and packing, not a boring old gun, but a pressure pack full of – pig’s blood…. (The heroic Mickey is wearing a South Sydney jumper in this scene – how topically appropriate!)

Bill Young, the director of The Roly Poly Man, is first and foremost an actor. Like most of his cast, he’s one of those "familiar faces" who’s been popping up in Australian films and TV for the past twenty years. Overseas viewers, meanwhile, might recognise Young from his recent appearances in The Matrix (as the Lieutenant) and Chopper (as Detective Downie). The Roly Poly Man was well-received at the time of its release, scoring a nomination for Best Screenplay at the AFIs, and screening at a number of international fantasy film festivals. However, for whatever reason, Bill Young has since returned to his "day job". To date, this remains his only shot at directing; a pity, because on the evidence here, he certainly knows his way around low-budget film-making, wringing the maximum amount of atmosphere out of his discreetly darkened sets (always useful for hiding a production’s limitations, of course) and turning his central character’s slovenliness into a positive virtue. Although The Roly Poly Man is set in Sydney, there is a noticeable – one might even say refreshing – absence of the customary picture postcard photography. Apart from a brief establishing shot of Sydney University (supposed whereabouts of Dr Wauchop – yeah, right!), the production steers well clear of all the usual locations until the very end of the film, when Trent contemplates the future while staring out over Sydney Harbour. (The shot is there not just to be "picturesque", but to set up the punchline to one of the film’s running gags; so I forgive them.) Scenes play out in dirty offices, ill-lit bars, darkened streets, cheap motels, graffiti-covered warehouses. In fact, it’s almost possible to watch the entire film without even realising that it is set in Sydney. Except for one thing – something I suspect may actually be a requirement for films funded by the NSW Film And Television Office – a gratuitous pot-shot at a Certain Southern Capital. Early on, puzzling over the supposed whereabouts of murder suspect Tom Lewis, Mickey inquires of his employer, "But Melbourne? Why pick Melbourne?" In response, Trent can only shake his head grimly. "He’s a desperate man…."