Wheelchair-bound, alcoholic Felix Crabtree (Michael Lake) and his flighty, religiously-fixated sister, Betty (Rhys Davis, credited as Melissa Davis) find their quiet, rather mournful lives disrupted when a stranger (Norman Boyd, credited as The Norm) appears at their rundown farmhouse on the edge of a blistering yellow desert. Calling himself “Smith”, the black-clad interloper keeps his origins to himself. Betty thinks he might be a demon. Smith jokes – or does he? – about being able to fly – quite a coincidence, as Felix is obsessed with building a glider to clear the mountains to the north and fly off to a new life. For Betty, change is evil. Is Smith?
For years now, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds has been all but a lost film. The first feature by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), it was filmed on 16mm around Broken Hill in the same period Proyas was shooting the music video for INXS’ “Kiss the Dirt”, and used mostly the same crew, to boot. After an extremely truncated limited theatrical run and a stint on the festival circuit, it shuffled onto VHS rental and quickly dipped below the radar of all but the most dedicated followers of Australian genre fare, enjoying a brief resurgence of notoriety after The Crow brought Proyas to prominence, sending film students and goth kids alike off to scour the Cult section of their local video library in hopes of tracking it down.
Even in the digital age, Spirits has remained a rare beast, with extremely dodgy VHS rips on the usual streaming sites being the only spoor. That’s all changed now, though, with the nigh-legendary film recently getting a painstaking 2K restoration and screening at MIFF before getting a home release through Umbrella’s Beyond Genres specialty label.
It’s a fascinating viewing experience. A low budget post-apocalyptic fable, Spirits of the Air owes more to Alejandro Jodorowsky than it does to George Miller. Proyas’s After the End scenario is sketched in strikingly off-kilter visuals and drenched in dense, often impenetrable symbolism (the crucifixes that festoon the Crabtree house are easy enough to parse; the line of ’50s-era convertibles half buried nose-down in the sand, less so). The narrative is elliptical, the performances opaque. The film is largely a three-hander, and Proyas draws heightened, theatrical turns from his actors, building on-screen characters that are more like archetypes from an unfamiliar pantheon rather than psychologically real people. That might test some viewers – it’s hard to find a point of identification when one character’s mad, another’s an enigma, and the third either manic or drunk.
However, counterpoint: it is so goddamn beautiful, it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty pat these days to note that Proyas is one of Australian cinema’s most gifted visual stylists, but if nothing else it’s certainly handy to have a decent copy of Spirits of the Air on hand to point at and note that, having honed his craft in music videos, Proyas’ prodigious chops were clearly evident right out of the gate. Working with cinematographer David Knaus and production designer Sean Callinan, Proyas gives us a wondrous and wonderfully dreamlike apocalyptic landscape – a deliberately weird interstitial space, on the edge of the desert, on the dividing line between land and sky, and perhaps life and death (there’s a lot of a death imagery here – you can’t throw a rock without hitting some symbol of the infinite void in Spirits of the Air). That it was pulled together on the cheap with nothing but love, guts, and skill is evident even in the squared-off 16mm frame, but only makes it all the more arresting; the film feels like a handcrafted afterlife, with not a prop, a rock, or a swatch of costuming out of place or not deliberately chosen.
The visuals are perfectly complimented by Peter Miller’s gorgeous score, which combines Morricone-esque flourishes with haunting vocals and minimalist electronica to create a suitably haunting soundscape to underpin Proyas’ parable.
The film’s principal flaw is that it is so dramatically inert; the audience is directed to look at objects rather than experience action, and this rather stately, occasionally lethargic pacing can be trying at times, even when the milieu is so jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s possible that, because of that, for modern audiences, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds will remain a curio, formally interesting but unengaging. However, if your interests lie in the history of Australian film, the cinema of the fantastic, the career or Alex Proyas, or all three, this is an indispensable work, and one we’ve been awaiting for far too long.