When a teacher and her class of students are kidnapped by a group of masked, shotgun-wielding lunatics, they’ll have to do whatever it takes to make it out alive…in Fortress.


Based on the hit 1980 Australian crime novel of the same, Fortress, from director Arc Nicholson, is a made-for-TV movie from HBO that originally aired in 1985 and was later released in Australian cinemas in 1986. But despite the sort of content HBO is known for today and the fairly graphic source material with an inherently violent premise, Fortress is a shockingly dry affair.

Now, the movie does have its fair share of–at least for the time–graphic violence. Characters are shot and stabbed on camera. And there are some fairly respectable practical effects on display. But such moments are limited to significant points in the film, and even then are largely obscured by camera angles and quick cuts. Whether this was due to budgetary concerns, self-censorship on the part of HBO, or some mixture of both is beyond me. And in any case, the end result is the same: Fortress simply isn’t scary, tense, or thrilling. Ever.

It certainly doesn’t help that the movie is at least thirty minutes too long. As is, Fortress already comes in at under ninety minutes. But through some combination of bad writing, bad directing, and bad editing, the movie feels even longer. So much of the movie is filled with shots that are far too long, scenes that drag on or serve little-to-no purpose, and utterly pointless and trite dialog.

In fact, most of the dialog in the film could have been cut out entirely without losing anything of value. There’s nothing really said that’s actually of any importance. No one has anything smart or clever to say. No impassioned speech. No fiery, frightening threats or monologuing from the villains. No necessary, if lazy exposition. It’s not even important to know why the characters are kidnapped.

Not that engaging dialog would mean anything in this movie, seeing as how no one in the cast can act. Every line is delivered with all the half-hearted enthusiasm of a child reading their homework for the class. Nobody displays more than two emotions, with their choices limited to either bored or mildly annoyed. And half the time the young actors are preoccupied with something off-camera or fussing about with one another rather that doing anything that would get us to care.

For example: there’s a point in the film where, finally, one of the children are gravely injured among all the chaos. But when this finally happens, you’d think the character in question had simply fallen and scrapped their knee. Neither Rachel Ward’s Sally, the teacher and only adult in the entire group, nor any of the other children are all too concerned that one of their own is seriously hurt and likely to die from their wounds. There’s no panic. No fear. No concern. No tears. There’s no degree of anything resembling human emotion to be found in this scene. It’s like watching the cast rehearse their blocking for how little acting is going on in a scene containing no less than ten actors.


And somehow even worse is the way the movie is lit, shot, and cut.

Every scene is either flat or too heavy with shadow. Nearly every shot looks like Nicholson was fresh out of film school instead of a seasoned director with some fifteen years experience by the time production started on Fortress. Everyone and everything is perfectly framed in uninteresting but functional wide shots, mid-shots, and a few close-ups. Nicholson never really plays with the camera or space, meaning nearly the entire film is shot from the same height, angle, and distance. There’s no change in pace, ever. What passes for the movie’s chase scenes and fight sequences are slow and clunky as the performances.

And as a result of all of this, Fortress looks and sounds like a middle-school production of a Richard Bachman novel. There’s a wholly gripping concept waiting to be mined and exploited. There are a number of scenes that could have been every bit as brutal as they could have been compelling, heartbreaking, or disturbing.

But there’s no emotion. No passion. The movie starts off slow, dull, and lifeless, and then just sort of stays that way. If not for the goofy, on-the-nose music, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that these characters are supposed to be in any sort of danger.

There’s no reason any movie, even one made for TV, needs to be so slow and harmless. There’s no reason for the tension or drama to be so lacking. No reason for the dialog and acting to be so insipid. And as a result, despite its great premise, there’s also no reason to even consider Fortress for you next movie night.

Fortress is easily a NO CHILL.

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