BAD BLOOD. Made for TV, UK, 1981. Southern Pictures / Kerridge Odeon, New Zealand, 1982. Jack Thompson, Carol Burns, Denis Lill, Donna Akersten, Martyn Sanderson, Kelly Johnson, Bruce Allpress. Based upon the book Manhunt: The Story of Stanley Graham, by H. A. Willis (Whitcoulls, 1979). Director: Mike Newell.

    Bad Blood opens with a telling scene that, in retrospect, tells the viewer a lot about how the story is going to unfold. In a small New Zealand farming community, the community men aim their rifles and fire at targets. The Second World War is on and the local, God-fearing, upstanding townsfolk are preparing to do their part (if called upon) to fight alongside Britain and against the Germans.

   Notably absent from the rather giddy group of would-be soldiers is Stan Graham, a local oddball who, along with his wife and kids, live on a small homestead in town. From the get go, the viewer learns two things: rifles are going to play significant roles in the narrative and that Graham is an outsider.

   Not surprisingly, guns and outsiders do not go well together, at least they don’t in director Mike Newell’s cinematic exploration of the life and times of real life New Zealand mass murderer Stan Graham (1900-1941).

   Portrayed with a combination of pathos and unbridled rage by Australian leading man Jack Thompson, Graham is an antisocial sort, a man consumed by bitterness whose devotion to his firearms leads to a catastrophic confrontation with local law enforcement. This triggers a large-scale manhunt in which Graham is finally captured. But not before killing more men who he blames for his failing farm.

   It’s a story that is once particular to a certain time and place in Depression-era western New Zealand and also easily transferable to any rural farming community that divides people into insiders and outsiders. Graham, as depicted in the film, is a paranoid man, so completely consumed by hate that it’s difficult to identify with him.

   And yet, we also get the sense that Graham’s financial failures and isolation are also due in part to a rather rigid community, one so caught up in the ways of propriety that they can’t stand the presence of the rude, uncouth Graham family in their presence. The real life Graham was surely a mass murderer and a villain, a man responsible for taking many lives, but the Graham portrayed on screen is a bit more nuanced. He’s something approaching an anti-hero, but not quite.

   He’s almost an anarchic figure whose refusal to conform leads to unspeakable tragedy for a close-knit community. Still at the end of the day, Graham is responsible for his own actions. After watching Bad Blood, it struck me just how subtle the director’s approach was. Without any sensationalism or over-moralizing, this New Zealand classic tells a “rural noir” story and lets the viewer wrestle with the uncomfortable implications.