The prevailing message of most Australian horror films - or at least most of the ones I've seen - is that you're pretty much screwed if you're not safely in a big city. Many Aussie flicks, like '70s masterpieces Walkabout and Wake in Fright (a rather obscure little gem that y'all should find in its new blu-ray format), former Midnight Movie of the Week Roadgames, and modern torture flick Wolf Creek, warn us about traveling in less populous areas of that island continent, while others like Dead Calm and Rogue focus on watery dangers around the terrain. I'm not sure what it is about Australia that makes people so afraid of traveling around or being in rural areas, but there's definitely something there that they want people to be afraid of.
A newly found entry into the "dangers of Australia" subgenre is Fortress, in which a teacher (Rachel Ward of the Phil Collins-flavored '80s drama Against All Odds) and her students are abducted from a one-room school house by a group of men in masks who throw them in a cave and ask for a ransom. Naturally, the kids don't like this, but their teacher gets them pumped up and a little bit of a war for survival follows.
Fortress was originally released on HBO in late 1985, as the network put up half of the budget in exchange for debut rights. But no punches were pulled for the TV broadcast, and the result is a survival thriller that still feels as sleazy and violent as theatrical productions of the era. The film tiptoes around some of the violence due to the cast of young characters, but still offers a few surprisingly vicious moments, like a well placed severed head in the middle of the film.
More tension comes from the trio of kidnappers, whose appearance in various masks - one a duck, one a cat, and one as Santa Claus (or, to these Aussie kids, Father Christmas) - reminded me of the aggressors in recent horror favorite You're Next. The kidnappers are large men (one of them is played by the well-known Vernon Wells, who co-starred in The Road Warrior and Commando, and also appeared in Stuart Gordon's unrelated 1992 sci-fi film Fortress) who look even bigger next to the young children and their feminine teacher. There's a definite statement about male domination of women and children being made here, and director Arch Nicholson does a good job of building up the difference in size and strength between the kidnappers and their victims.
But the film gets most interesting when it puts power back in the hands of our teacher and her students, who adapt to their surroundings in attempts to first survive and later fight back. Ward gives a solid performance in the lead, but all of the children around her do a fine job of keeping the film moving. By the time the teacher and her students are ready to take a stand the film has already created a large amount of empathy for the characters, which leads to a final act that wraps the film up in a manner that is both satisfying and chilling. And the end result leaves Fortress as a great piece of survival cinema and one more example of why you appear to be safer if you never go to less populous parts of Australia.