Patrick is a film dripping with cinephilia. That shouldn't be a surprise, as it comes from Mark Hartley, the director of Not Quite Hollywood, the gonzo paean to Australian exploitation films (have you seen it? See it!). Within that 2008 documentary is a salute to 1978's Patrick, a strange little psychological thriller about a comatose young man and the supernatural influence he exerts on the medical staff attending to him. The film is a staple of Aussie cinema of the 70s, is familiar to the US VHS generation, and spawned an Italian rip-off sequel (the true mark of a successful exploitation venture!).
The original film was directed by Richard Franklin, an admirer/protégé of Alfred Hitchcock. In a career that took him from the Australian outback (Road Games) to Universal's backlot (as the director of Psycho II, Franklin's career seemed to happily exist in Hitch's shadow), it's fitting that this remake of Franklin's most iconic film seems to at times leapfrog over the late director's legacy to riff on The Master himself, bumping into De Palma and Hammer once or twice along the ride. Eschewing contemporary horror trends of chaotic framing and sensory disorientation in favor of a measured, often graceful aesthetic, Patrick starts off with a giddy energy that often feels like the work of a kid in a cinematic candy store. Pino Donaggio music. Audacious (some might say outdated) coverage. Pristine, so-what-phony establishing shots that would look right at home on the easel of famed matte artist Albert Whitlock. As mentioned, it's clear we're watching a movie made by someone who LOVES movies. That might sound like a baseline standard, but when you see it on display like you do here, you realize that in 2013 it very much isn't a given. And that's kind of refreshing.
Where the original Patrick had a meat-and-potatoes, 70s quality fighting against its more stylish aspirations, this year's model is all goth and gloss. The central location is an art director's wet dream: a former convent (natch) turned into a dusty, murky, nightmarish convalescent home where Dr. Roget (Charles Dance) is performing neurological experiments on comatose patients, his efforts ramping up in an attempt to produce results before his funding is pulled. Our entry into this world is Nurse Kathy Jacqard (Sharni Vinson), presented as an archetypal Hitchcock "girl on the run", who finds herself sympathizing with her silently suffering charges. Rather, mostly silent - Kathy believes the handsome young patient named Patrick (Jackson Gallagher) is trying to communicate with her. His involuntary spitting, which the staff assures her is a muscle reaction (and which Tarantino lifted from the original film for Kill Bill), makes Kathy believe that Patrick is more than aware of what's happening to him.
Lest anyone worry that they've classed up the original story too much, rest assured that the filmmakers soon get down to dizzily silly business, as Patrick reaches through space and time and the internet and Nurse Kathy's data plan to cause all manner of mischief, for not only the abusive staff, but for Kathy, with whom he's forming a jealous, violent attachment. The film goes where it's required to, but unfortunately that tight stylish grip on display in act one loosens considerably as the mayhem increases. By the finale it all gets a little too close to stock horror situations, but the aesthetic dressings go a long way toward easing the disappointment.
Hartley's cast is great - Sharni Vinson and Peta Sergeant are the kind of likable/gorgeous girls next door you don't see often in American film anymore. Charles Dance is a lot of fun in the Malcolm MacDowell role (apologies to both men for that comparison), and Rachel Griffiths seems to be enjoying a second career as Cloris Leachman. Even Gallagher, lying immobile in a thankless, silent role, is used effectively.
There aren't a ton of surprises in the climactic finale of the film, but it's littered with enough crazy moments to tie it to its Ozploitation roots. Patrick is ultimately a refreshing tonic from the kind of chaotic, unenthusiastic studio product masquerading as horror. And whatever your final takeaway, Patrick has one of the best catchphrases in the last thirty years of horror. Uttered over and over again by a roomful of comatose puppets under Patrick's control, you'll leave the film with that line in your head and a smile on your face.