To coincide with All Hallows’ Eve and the release of twisted Aussie shocker The Loved Ones, released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK earlier in the month and set to hit cinemas in its native country on 4th November, we’re taking a brief look back over the history of Australian horror films with ten killer cuts that give a tantalising taste of the breadth and diversity that the former convict colony has to offer in the field of cinematic shocks.
Night of Fear
Directed by Terry Bourke, 1972
Starring Norman Yemm, Carla Hoogeveen & Mike Dorsey
An early precursor to the ‘outback psycho’ sub-genre of films like Wolf Creek and Storm Warning, Night of Fear, by pioneering Ozzie filmmaker Terry Bourke, also predates Tobe Hooper’s rural rampage flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – with which it shares a number of striking similarities – by two years. Clocking in a little shy of feature length at just 54 minutes, this grisly shocker was originally created as the pilot for a TV series called Fright. After the show was rejected by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (see screenshot for details), it became the first horror film from Australia to receive a theatrical release, though not before a short period during which it was refused classification by the censors.
Night of Fear is interesting for more than just its turbulent history and historical significance as a pioneering work of Australian genre cinema though. Notably, the film is entirely without dialogue and characters are referred to in the credits simply as ‘The Man’ and ‘The Woman’. It’s a bold stroke, but works here thanks largely to the lean running time. Essentially, the film is little more than a protracted suspense sequence in which an attractive young blonde is pursued through the outback by your typical axe-wielding bumpkin in dungarees, but Bourke manages to successfully maintain tension for the most part with grainy, high contrast cinematography helping to conjure up a suitably squalid atmosphere.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Directed by Peter Weir, 1975
Starring Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray & Helen Morse
After making his feature debut with the bizarre black comedy The Cars That Ate Paris, Australia’s premiere helmsman turned in the first of several masterpieces with this celebrated adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s ambiguous mystery novel about the unexplained disappearance of several college students and a teacher from Victorian natural landmark Hanging Rock.
But is it a horror film? Well, IMDB says that it is and that’s good enough for me. It’s certainly one of the most haunting films ever to come from down under, or anywhere else for that matter. Opening on a long shot of the titular landmark accompanied by a low howling wind, Picnic at Hanging Rock is deliberately unnerving from the outset: the first line of dialogue is an excerpt from the poem “A Dream Within a Dream” by master of mystery and suspense Edgar Allan Poe. Incorporating a variety of cinematic techniques, the pivotal scene at Hanging Rock is one of the most memorable ever committed to celluloid, and authentically chilling in a way that could only be achieved by an exceptionally gifted craftsman such as Peter Weir.
Widely acclaimed as Australia’s first prestige picture, this beautiful and elegiac period piece is virtually unmatched in its power to captivate the viewer’s senses, whether through Weir’s painterly compositions, the eerie Romanian pan pipe melodies performed by Gheorghe Zamfir, or the grace and elegance of teenage star Anne-Louise Lambert, looking every bit the “Botticelli angel” that her character is supposed to resemble. Picnic at Hanging Rock is truly a must see for anyone seriously interested in cinema as an artform.
Directed by Richard Franklin, 1978
Starring Susan Penhaligon, Robert Helpmann & Rod Mullinar
Cashing in on the short-lived trend for movies about telekinesis brought about by Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Patrick tells the story of matricidal coma patient who has the power to manipulate his surroundings with his mind. After developing an unhealthy crush on his nurse, the eponymous villain starts to employ his abilities to increasingly sinister effect.
Patrick marked the big screen debut of TV writer Everett De Roche, who would become a major player in Ozzie horror, penning several of the films on this list. It was also a significant film in the careers of Hitchcock fanatic Richard Franklin, who would go on to direct Psycho II, and Mad Max composer Brian May (not to be confused with the poodle-haired rocker), who provided the film’s original score.
One of the most memorable horror movies of Australia’s new wave, Patrick became an international hit, and the cold dead stare of its title character an iconic image of national genre cinema. In Italy, where Brian May’s music was supplanted by a score from legendary Italian prog-rockers Goblin, the film proved such a success that it spawned a sleazy pseudo-sequel/rip-off in Mario Landi’s deranged Patrick Still Lives. It is now, apparently, scheduled to be remade by Mark Hartley, director of the excellent documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!
Directed by Colin Eggleston, 1978
Starring John Hargreaves, Briony Behets & Mike McEwen
One of the defining genre classics of Australia’s second cinematic golden age, wilderness horror Long Weekend is a bleak fable about a suburbanite couple who go on a camping trip to try and patch up their rocky marriage, but, through their own callous disregard for the wellbeing of anything but themselves, end up falling afoul of mean ol’ Mother Nature.
Written by reliable genre scribe Everett De Roche, Long Weekend is an intelligent and suspenseful ecological thriller distinguished by good production values and fine performances from the lead players. Director Colin Eggleston, who would fail throughout his career to capitalise on the early promise shown here, does an expert job of imbuing shots of the terrain with a sense of genuine foreboding. Superior sound design also helps to accentuate the feeling of an increasingly hostile environment, ripe with menace.
It certainly wasn’t the first time that the Australian landscape had been portrayed in such an ominous fashion (see Picnic at Hanging Rock above), but never before had nature itself been cast as the enemy in an Australian film. As such, it proved to be quite influential, with the possum and eagle sequences prefiguring the animal attack movies that would become a staple of Aussie genre cinema in later years.
Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1982
Starring Steve Railsback, Olivia Hussey & Michael Craig
A thoroughly trashy sci-fi horror variation of The Most Dangerous Game from Ozploitation legend Brian Trenchard-Smith, Turkey Shoot was one of many productions subsidised by the Australian government under tax exemption scheme 10BA, which came into effect in 1981. A truly archetypal exploitation picture, chock full of nudity and gratuitous violence, this dystopian gorefest seemed to be custom built for the international market. Fortunate, given how hard it bombed at home.
An international cast had been employed to give the film overseas appeal, headed by workmanlike method actor Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter) and the impossibly beautiful Olivia Hussey, but when released in the US under the title Escape 2000 (despite being set in 1995), the film promised to be as much of a flop abroad as it was at home. Only when it was released in the UK did it begin to experience a reversal of fortune. Opportunistically retitled Blood Camp Thatcher to play up the link between sadistic warden Charles Thatcher and his namesake, Maggie the milk snatcher, the film became a resounding hit with British cinemagoers. With the Iron Lady three years into her reign of error, audiences proved so receptive to a film about a social underclass rising up against their oppressors that it unexpectedly topped the box office.
Directed by Russell Mulcahy, 1984
Starring Gregory Harrison, Arkie Whiteley & Bill Kerr
Quentin Tarantino has referred to Russell Mulcahy as “the poor man’s Ridley Scott”, which has, if nothing else, got to be better than being the poor man’s Tony Scott. Or even the actual Tony Scott, with whom Mulcahy probably has more of an affinity. Like Scott the Younger, Mulcahy is a filmmaker who has been oft accused of emphasising style over substance – hardly surprising for the director of the first music video ever to be aired on MTV. Razorback, his first attempt at a narrative feature, is certainly a slick and glossy affair, with lots of moody shadows, heavy backlighting and copious amounts of smoke and dry ice (yeah… it’s the ‘80s), but that doesn’t prevent if from being a lot of fun. Or, at least, a little fun.
In a nutshell, it’s Jaws on land, consciously aping Spielberg’s landmark blockbuster in a number of areas. The great white shark has here been substituted for a colossal killer boar running amok in the outback, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. And this hog from hell doesn’t just kill people while they’re out in the open, it’ll tear apart a car or even a house to get its tusks on ‘em.
Combining frequent scenes of porcine destruction with the usual city slicker in Hicksville fish-out-of-water shtick, Razorback manages to feel comfortably familiar while offering something that couldn’t be found anywhere else, and its influence can clearly be seen in more recent killer pig movies like Pig Hunt and Chaw.
Directed by Philip Brophy, 1993
Starring Gerard Kennedy, Andrew Daddo & Ian Smith
Capitalising on the success of fellow Antipodean filmmaker Peter Jackson’s seminal splatshtick comedies Bad Taste and Braindead, Philip Brophy’s first and, to date, only feature generated a considerable buzz on the festival circuit prior to its release, but is today remembered primarily for featuring half the contemporaneous cast of Neighbours in seemingly unlikely screen roles. After all, where else can you see Toby Mangel get mangled? Or soap stalwart Ian Smith (that’s Harold Bishop to you and me) getting trigger happy?
Body Melt is a truly visceral experience that lives up to its suggestive title, with enough puke, snot and blood to satiate all but the most jaded of gorehounds, and it almost manages to make up for in irreverent humour and freewheeling cinematic style what it lacks in characterisation and coherent narrative structure. The lack of any identifiable protagonist does act as something of a barrier to emotional engagement, but something tells me that’s not why most people watch a film entitled Body Melt in the first place.
Directed by Tracey Moffatt, 1993
Starring Lex Marinos, Tracey Moffatt & Riccardo Natoli
In competition with Body Melt for Best Film at the Sitges International Film Festival in 1993, beDevil is an unfairly neglected portmanteau film from Aboriginal artist and filmmaker Tracey Moffatt. An opening title sequence worthy of Saul Bass immediately announces this film as something far removed from the usual low budget schlockfest. It is certainly an atypical genre piece as there is nothing scary or shocking in the film, and with only vague supernatural elements, it barely qualifies as a horror film at all. Curiously, parts of the film resemble nothing so much as a cooking programme.
The frequently employed technique of direct address to camera is certainly more common to comedies than horror films; the breaking of the fourth wall creating a connection with the viewer that serves to dissipate tension. It is, however, a device that links the oral traditions of Aboriginal Australians with the storytelling theme that is prevalent in horror anthologies from Dead of Night to Trapped Ashes. The deliberately artificial sets also lend a theatrical quality that chimes well with the concept of narrative as performance as well as establishing a kind of unreality, further emphasised by the colourful art direction and stylish cinematography, that serves the supernatural elements well.
Directed by Michael & Peter Spierig, 2003
Starring Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay & Rob Jenkins
After the inhabitants of a small town begin turning into zombies following a meteor shower, a group of survivors that includes a beauty queen and a gun-crazy alien abductee, hole up in an isolated farmhouse and try to survive long enough to work out what’s caused the epidemic, which has something to do with aliens. Or acid rain. Or something.
Given an honourable mention by ‘oor Graham’ in his article on zombie flicks, Undead is a stylish if somewhat vacuous zom-com from brothers Michael and Peter Spierig that emerged during the wilderness years of Australian horror. The film’s main problem is that it tries just too damn hard to be hip, cramming in so many splatterrific set-pieces, cheesy one-liners, and knowing references to well-loved genre favourites like Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead that it soon becomes clear it has nothing else to offer.
It’s as visually appealing as you might expect for a film by former commercial directors, but despite providing some sporadic amusement, is an ultimately empty experience that seems designed to appeal primarily to hyperactive 12-year olds. If you thought Ryûhei Kitamura’s Versus was the epitome of cinematic cool, then you’ve probably already seen Undead and think it’s awesome, but anyone that’s not a rabid genre fan would be best advised to steer clear.
Directed by Greg Mclean, 2005
Starring John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath & Kestie Morassi
Splat-packer Greg Mclean burst onto the international horror scene in 2005 with this sordid story about a trio of travelling twentysomethings who find themselves up Wolf Creek without a paddle, at the mercy of a homicidal hick in a remote part of the Australian outback. A genuinely unsettling performance from Ozzie horror fave John Jarratt as the rape-crazy rustic roustabout enlivens what is already a solid genre piece with assured direction and decent enough performances from all concerned.
Taking its cue from the “Backpacker Murders” – the sensational criminal case that shook the nation a decade earlier – Wolf Creek‘s claim to be based on actual events is less spurious than that of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Playing on traditional fears about the wild country whilst also tapping into the torture porn phenomenon that began in earnest a year earlier with Saw (from Ozzie filmmaker James Wan), Wolf Creek proved to be a resounding commercial success, spearheading a new wave of budget-conscious outback shockers such as Storm Warning and Black Water.