Top 10 Films’ world tour of horror cinema takes us “down under” as we visit Australia where crazy bushmen, sinister communities, hostile natural environments and a host of other dangers lay in wait…
Lone crazed bushmen, dysfunctional and sinister communities, hostile natural environments, infectious diseases, cannibalism, excessive eccentricity, hidden threats, paranoia, werewolves and ghosts – there is a lot to be worried about in Australia, especially if one ventures outside any of the major cities. Mark Fraser looks at some ridgy-didge Aussie variations on the horror movie that seem to be as much influenced by foreign cinema as they do by the cultural conditions Down Under.
10. Body Melt (Philip Brophy, 1993)
In what appeared to be a direct response to Peter Jackson’s over-the-top New Zealand gore fest Braindead (1992), Victorian academic Philip Brophy wrote and directed Body Melt, another comedy splatter flick about a secret medical experiment that goes horribly wrong in an outer Melbourne housing estate. It pretty much contains everything the genre has to offer – from exploding faces and cheap-looking anatomical mutations to deviant outback hillbillies and bumbling cops. In the December 1984 edition of the now defunct Cinema Papers, a monthly magazine which was – at the time – one of the most influential film publications in Australia, Brophy wrote a lengthy piece on the then predominantly overseas horror revival, in which he said: “A third of the way into Friday the 13th the audience was one; one body being poked, tapped, spooked or fooled; there was no identification processes and no narrative suspense; the film actually offered its audience nothing. In short it was attacked. Contemporary horror films are about this type of cinematic experience. It is the aesthetic of the ‘big dipper effect’: a physical sensation brought about by an unsettling of mental stability that includes pleasure – the thrill of it all.” An interesting observation, but not one that can necessarily be applied to his own subsequent foray into the genre as, at the end of the day, Body Melt – like the Jackson film before it – is played strictly for laughs.
9. Damned by Dawn (Brett Anstey, 2009)
When Claire (Renee Willner) and her boyfriend Paul (Danny Alder) go to visit her dying grandmother (Dawn Klingberg) at the family farm, the stupid girl circumvents the old woman’s final wish by trying to kill a screaming banshee (Bridget Neval) that has turned up to escort grandma to the afterlife. As a result the house’s residents – including father Bill (Peter Stratford) and younger sister Jen (Taryn Eva) – get caught up in a battle with a bunch of angry ghosts that have emerged from a nearby makeshift bush graveyard. The early part of the storm sequence looks like it has been lifted straight out of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), while the special effects (sans the violence) wouldn’t be out of place in Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996). Quick paced, but a story that ends up being quite run-of-the-mill.
8. The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974)
The residents of the sleepy rustic hamlet of Paris (located in the Bathurst area of New South Wales) capture and lobotomise passing tourists so they can steal their belongings (including their cars, which are dismantled and traded as parts) and – in some instances – adopt their orphaned children. Eventually the place implodes after the America-centric mayor (John Meillon) stands up to a group of car crazed youth, which rebels by trashing the joint on the night of the fancy dress ball with the help of some murderously modified motor vehicles. This cathartic moment of destruction provides the mild mannered Arthur (Terry Camilleri) – one of the accident victims who inexplicably doesn’t get turned into a vegetable – the impetus to escape. A quirky and somewhat annoyingly vague black comedy that ends up being nothing more than a one horse joke set in a one street town. Strangely enough, the sometimes eclectic Peter Weir started his career as a writer and director of quasi-horror films, making the short Homesdale in 1971 before following his debut feature (The Cars That Ate Paris) with the extremely over-rated “mystery” Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977), a supernatural thriller that successfully Hollywoodised the notion of Australian indigenous spirituality.
7. Undead (Michael and Peter Spierig, 2003)
As if having the walking dead roaming the countryside isn’t enough, the Spierig boys beef things up by throwing aliens into the mix. Another horror-comedy with liberal doses of schlocky violence and plenty of laconic Aussie attitude, the film follows the adventures of a former country town beauty pageant queen (Felicity Mason) who gets caught up in a meteor shower-induced zombie invasion, only to discover that some hooded spacemen have also arrived to help keep the infected in tow. Aside from being too campy and obvious, the movie lacks a charismatic lead, especially when it comes to the gun toting superhero Marion (Mungo McKay), who simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to looking and talking tough.
6. Dying Breed (Jody Dwyer, 2008)
Cashing in on Australia’s reputation as an erstwhile convict colony, the film is set in the heart of the nation’s Deliverance country – Tasmania. Four friends (Mirrah Foulkes, Leigh Whannell, Nathan Phillips and Melanie Vallejo) go looking for a Tasmanian tiger somewhere deep in what appears to be the Mt Read Volcanics in the state’s west. One of them (Foulkes) has an ulterior motive – she is also searching for her sister (Sally McDonald), who went missing in the area some years before. They eventually arrive at what looks like the set of Jabberwocky, where they rile some of the predictably strange and eccentric redneck locals before embarking on their ill-fated journey down river. Unfortunately, it turns out that these townsfolk are cannibals – plus they need outside females so they can breed. Although it has a sound enough premise and looks great, the violent Dying Breed eventually becomes a little too convoluted. Furthermore, a few of its plot twists – like the one involving an old crazy woman (Elaine Hudson) and a “guide” called Liam (Ken Radley), who looks like he has been modelled on the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film of the same name – don’t quite add up.
5. beDevil (Tracey Moffatt, 1993)
With beDevil, writer/director Tracey Moffatt earned the distinction of being the first indigenous Australian to make a feature length (90 minute) movie. The fact it was classed as a ghost film is not surprising given it essentially focuses on issues pertaining to Aboriginal spirituality and culture. However, it is also a very unorthodox approach to the horror genre, focusing on three unlinked short stories set in northern Queensland (Mr Chuck, Choo Choo Choo Choo and Lovin’ the Spin I’m In) which sit within a narrative that “moves seamlessly back and forth between the past and the present, from a kind of reality to striking stylization”*.
According to Moffatt, it was inspired by stories she had heard as a child, albeit in a more flamboyant and nightmarish embellishment. However, in an attempt to do something different, many of the so-called innovative aspects of the movie are fairly standard. Sometimes characters directly speak to the camera (a la Jean Luc-Godard), while at others the material is laboured (the studio shots at times look a little too gimmicky; a few of the scenes make their point quickly and are then stretched out for way too long; sometimes the whirr of the camera can be heard). As one commentator at the time pointed out, up until the release of beDevil, almost all fictional cinematic representation of Australia’s indigenous peoples could only be found in movies made by white guys – from Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (1955), Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) to Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) and Bruce Beresford’s The Fringe Dwellers (1986). For my money, Moffatt struck middle ground with this film. Sure, it’s a flashy and interesting pastiche; it’s also quite moody and innovative; plus the horror is, for the most part, strangely benign. But there are also times when it looks like a work that has been made to appeal more to the sensibilities of a sympathetic Anglo audience rather than the average indigenous person on the street. (*David Stratton, “Supernatural vision”, The Weekend Australian, 30/10/93.)
4. Night of Fear (Terry Bourke, 1972)
Originally made for television, Night of Fear takes the idea of the crazed lone Australian bushman to an extreme not surpassed until the release of Wolf Creek over 30 years later (see below). In this case the loner psychopath (Norman Yemm) terrorises, and then captures, a stranded female traveller (Carla Hoogeveen) before locking her in a room and releasing his army of hungry rats onto her. An Australian drive-in favourite during the first half of the 1970s, this one is kind of unique in that there is no dialogue – Yemm spends the entire film taunting his victim with madman gibberish, while Hoogeveen just screams her head off. Even the dim-witted police detectives, who don’t find anything suspicious when they arrive at the scene to “investigate”, fail to exchange words, relying instead on meaningful glances that don’t really mean anything at all. Coincidently, this movie was made around the time (or shortly after) the US release of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), a film which covered some similar territory and proved to be very popular amongst Aussie film-goers of the day. Obviously the idea that there were lone, murderous rednecks lurking in the bush was part of the national psyche well before the eventual arrival of Wolf Creek. As an aside, and this can be found on Wikipedia, Ben Goldsmith and Geoff Lealand – in their 2010 Directory of World Cinema – suggested that Night of Fear was the first horror movie of the so called renaissance in Australian cinema, which started in the early 1970s when the Commonwealth and State governments decided to fund film making. Not bad for a work which isn’t even an hour long.
3. (TIE) Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1977)
Nature is the enemy this time as it rallies against a camping couple (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) who trash their immediate environment during a weekend visit to an isolated beach somewhere along the New South Wales coast.* A quite low key, but competently made shocker, with some great moving camerawork towards the end as a desperate and exhausted Peter (Hargreaves) tries to escape the bush by foot. This film’s scenario is not dissimilar to that of George McCowan’s mild 1972 horror opus Frogs, in which the local fauna rebel against a destructive landowner (Ray Milland) and his just as wretched family somewhere in swampy Florida. Lost Weekend was later remade in 2008 under its original title by director Jamie Banks. Despite the presence of Claudia Karvan and James Caviezel as the bickering couple, it is nowhere near as good as the original. (*Ironically, the film’s original theatrical trailer promoted nature as being pure evil, when in fact it’s the humans who are the cursed ones – a point the movie repeatedly rams home.)
3. (TIE) Howling III AKA Howling III: The Marsupials (Philippe Mora, 1987)
Ambitious and audacious are terms that don’t even begin to describe this strange werewolf movie. The word ridiculous also comes to mind. Director/writer/producer Philippe Mora had already made the Hollywood sequel for Joe Dante’s 1981 horror classic The Howling (the dire Howling II: You’re Sister is a Werewolf in 1985) before setting this unrelated episode of the franchise in Australia. The cast – including a hilariously over-the-top Barry Otto, Imogen Annesley and Michael Pate (as the US President?!) – all play it with a straight face, while most of the werewolf transformations are quite laughable (Bob McCarron is no Rick Baker). Apparently, the fly-leaf for the shooting script of the film included a quote from Salvador Dali that said: “In truth the imagination of the Hollywood experts will be the only thing that will ever have surpassed me.”* If Mora did lack any imagination while making the Howling III, he unashamedly made up for it with balls. (*Cinema Papers, January 1987, page 37.)
2. Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005)
While many would prefer Wolf Creek to its 2013 sequel (see below), the first instalment of this evolving franchise is more of a slasher/torture porn film than a true blue horror one. Unlike the ranting madman in Night of Fear, the cold blooded and ruthless kidnapper/killer Mick Taylor (John Jarrett) is laconically witty and erudite – a helpful charmer who turns out to be a conniving and resourceful monster. As a brutal murderer he has no peer, cold bloodedly knifing Liz (Cassandra Magrath) in the lower spine in order to paralyse her, while swiftly finishing off the begging Kristy (Kestie Morassi) with a single shot from his rifle after an arduous car chase across the outback. Although writer/director Greg McLean claims the film is based on true events, Australia has yet to produce a serial killer who has killed so many so brazenly. Admittedly there is Ivan Milat, who is currently doing time for killing seven backpackers in the first half of the 1990s. But he didn’t do half of the things – such as kidnap couples and horde their cars or torch bodies on the side of the road – that Taylor gets away with.
1. Wolf Creek 2 (Greg McLean, 2013)
This sequel has all of the above with some dungeon horror thrown in, the result being something which looks very Hollywood. In this instalment it seems the evil Mick Taylor not only has a penchant for taunting, torturing and killing young tourists, but also for chopping up their bodies. It’s never explained what he plans to do with the cuts – at one point it’s possible that he may have been feeding them to the chained prisoners he has accumulated back at his compound; however, by the time English tourist Paul Hammersmith (Ryan Corr) stumbles across these poor souls, all but one are dead. Once again McLean pushes the myth of the bush psychopath to a brutal extreme while trying to give the whole thing legitimacy by saying the story is based on some kind of reality – an exaggeration which really does beggar belief. In effect, Taylor murders with a kind of mystic impunity that even Ted Bundy would have aspired to. In the opening sequence, for instance, he violently kills two traffic cops and torches their vehicle; then he scours the countryside looking for more fresh meat. At another point he hijacks a road train, disposing of the driver with his knife (off-screen) before pursuing Hammersmith in a Duel-like, high speed, open highway chase that gets rather messy when they come across a bunch of kangaroos crossing the road (a macabrely clever sequence). One intriguing aspect of the film, though, is the fact Taylor is portrayed not just as a purely evil psychotic bastard, but also as an out-and-out xenophobe. In essence he hates foreigners, just as the current conservative Australian Coalition Federal Government does with its ongoing electoral promise to “turn back the boats”. If anything, Taylor represents part of the Aussie contradiction – that while the country considers itself to be uniquely egalitarian, it is, to a certain degree, as class conscious and racially intolerant as any other nation on Earth.
Written and compiled by Mark Fraser
Your turn – do you have a favourite horror movie from Australia?