When ‘Wolf Creek’ was brought for over $4 million in 2005 by a US distributor, horror was quickly seen as the new vanguard of Australian cinema. But from what dark kernels does this inheritance stem? The history of the local horror film is cross-pollinated by various demands, from overseas audiences to distributing requirements to shoestring budgets. But the arcane total creates an interesting prism through which to gaze not just across a passage of Australian cinema, but into the heart of our somewhat darker preoccupations.
They lie somewhere between the murderous Datsuns of Peter Weir’s Cars that Ate Paris and the carnage of Terry Bourke’s 1971 slasher Night of Fear. This is a land dominated not by a vengeful God, but by ocker madmen and dark mystic edges. Its players drift lonely across the megafauna. The vast hollow of the outback provides a captivating stage for what horror author Robert Hood has called the “alien meaning that heralds a predetermined, apocalyptic end”.
Greg McLean acknowledged as much when he stepped onto the barren crater of the Wolf Creek location: “The implication is that there is some force in this place and it potentially manifests itself through dark, lonely characters who are thinking about things they shouldn’t be thinking about”.
For McLean Wolf Creek was a return to the ground zero of horror – tracing the legacy of films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. “Whether you look at Wolf Creek as a crappy horror movie or as a thriller, it does focus you on an extremely uncomfortable moment and allows you to dwell on the darkest kind of human transaction you can imagine.” says McLean. ““Heads exploding is uninteresting by itself. There are so many crappy crime shows with killers and serial killers and they gloss over the unbelievable horror of the transaction at the moment of someone being killed.”
While Australia’s horror films may have been occasionally laconic (Incident at Ravens Gate), sometimes chilling (The Last Wave), frequently bizarre (Howling 3: The Marsupials) – they are all rooted in the sturdy disquiet and abhorrence that have stalked the land since colonial times and, more often than not, kept the Censorship Office open for business.
SOLDIERS OF THE CROSS (1900)
It may come as a surprise then that Australia’s first quasi-horror fest was pioneered by the Salvation Army. Limelight Productions was, in fact, one of the world’s very first production houses. Designed specifically as a recruiting tool, this department ultimately gained notoriety for a different reason. Soldiers of the Cross, a 1900 Limelight Production, was a skilful weaving of 200 beautiful limelight slides with 3000 feet of freshly pressed kinematographic film. It was also a brutal cavort through the fundaments of Sainthood. For two hours audiences watched Christian soldiers being shredded by lions in the wastes of the Coliseum; being beaten, crucified, mauled and beheaded before being turned into smouldering strips of human torchlight for the Emperor Nero. “The martyrdom of the saints is fascinating in its reality” commented one dazed parishner.
Soldiers of the Cross was just north of horror, but it cast its shadow. Within church ranks there was unease about this restless medium stirring on the horizon. The Church no doubt realised it had raised a golem. When the Salvation Army was taken over in 1910 by more puritanical commandants the film department was quickly dismantled. Full kudos must be given to the Army’s new insurgents: they clearly understood the genre’s potential.
THE BLOODY BUSHRANGER
Meanwhile, in lieu of burning saints, a mad parade of bushrangers, scoundrels and assorted villainy flocked to fill the breach. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), apocryphally noted as the world’s first full-length motion picture, retrieved the blood scent. A 1907 edition of the Bulletin says: “By the time the railway scene comes on the public have had their taste for blood so freely whetted they have no enthusiasm for the schoolmaster who spoils the Kelly arrangement”.
While the Bushranger does not strictly haunt Australia’s horror canon, he was critical to the development of its code. In the compendium of early bushranger films ferments the root note of the classic killer. While the mystic native has long belonged to the land (The Last Wave, Walkabout, The Dreaming), the madman has traditionally been the flip-sider who haunts the Big Australian Empty (along with powerhouse crocs and bristling hell-hogs).
It is no coincidence that this aspect of our heritage lent itself so supremely to the horror film and its (occasional) box office returns. By 1907 the bloody bushranger film was so popular one nettled preacher warned: “These films do for children all that strong drink does for the drunkard!” So when this high-calibre screen violence was banned from NSW cinemas in 1911 there was, naturally, an outcry. But this time it was the Government, not the Church, who pulled the curtain.
The banning of “pictorial horror” severely hampered the local industry, which had already found its niche in “representations of gore and galloping cut throats”, as one impassioned fan letter to the Bulletin put it. This protester suggested the reasons for the prohibition were disingenuous: “It is easier and cheaper to import the American gorescape than to make a local one. The puritan denounces the bushranger and hasn’t got a word to say against the Indian horror with the turkey’s tail around his savage cranium. Which showman is game enough to adopt the motto: ‘Only Australian Blood Spilt Here!’”
But it was to be more than seventy years before the bushranger was resurrected in such incarnate splendour as Phillipe Mora’s magnificently violent Mad Dog Morgan (also notable for the Dennis Hopper’s method-channelling of dead Irish bushrangers via a breakfast of rum and cocaine). They also, in part, inspired the contemporary macabre of John Hillcoat’s excellent prison-based Ghosts of the Civil Dead, described by the UK Time Out Magazine as “presenting some of the most horrifying images ever shown on screen. A masterpiece in the order of Goya.”
Violence in Cinema: Part 1
The screen, like nature – and prohibition – abhors a vacuum. But for many years the Australian Film Industry languished in one. Over the next forty years Australia saw other moments of early on-screen horror, but they are sparse and few between.
By 1960 the Australian film industry had veered dangerously close to extinction. Between 1959 and 1966 not one Australian feature film, horror or otherwise, was produced. Amongst some more interesting documentaries, cinema reels were largely motion sound grabs lauding the British Empire, lyricising a golden age of prosperity. A generation of directors, writers and technicians practiced their art through the production of these newsreels. But the tightly sutured reality of post-war Australia was about to undergo a well-documented haemorrhage.
If there was a clearer reaction to this industrial film-mill than George Miller’s 1971 Violence in Cinema: Part 1, it is hard to find. The film begins with a Professor (Arthur Dignam) seated at his desk, talking to camera about violence on screen. It comes as a shock then when a gunshot splits his head apart like pink fruit. Splattered in gore, Dignam rattles on, gabbling like a human metronome, while further desecrations commence to shear him down to bloodied pulp. The abhorrent sense of relief felt through this overt violence is palpable. The film was a short explosion; it tore a cavity open and exposed a heartbeat. The critics didn’t know what to do with it. At the 1972 Sydney Film Festival it was placed it in the documentary category.
THE HORROR PUSH
By the 1970s television had begun opening the eyes to the abominable. With political assassination buried in the collective conscience, Vietnam unfurling in the living room, and idealistic abandon exploding like a land mine at every step, what television couldn’t handle cinema dined on. In the US cinema screens were now luminous with gore. ‘Grindhouse Cinema’ was famously churning out its low-grade product. So when the new Whitlam Govt offered a subsidy to the Film Industry in 1970 we fixed our hands on grimier reels. By the mid seventies what Robert Hood calls the ‘Australian Horror Push’ was in full bludgeon.
“Horror films have suddenly become the best money making vehicle” Producer Rod Hay told the Daily Telegraph in 1973; “They also provided an excellent opportunity for technical excellence by photographers, make up artists and effects experts.”
Inspired by the gorier flicks now coming out of the US, Australia had its share of purveyors ready to dip their hand. The inimitable Terry Bourke was one. Bourke’s first feature had been a ‘soft-core sex romp’ set in Singapore, but after judiciously eyeing the US market he set to task creating a more salacious brand of outrage. Bourke teamed up with producer Rod Hay to form the Company Terryrod Productions, and together they conceived their first project.
Night of Fear was a homespun shocker – in the every sense of the word. An inchoate story about a stranded woman stalked by a bush dwelling maniac, this low rent slasher was filmed in scrubland on the outskirts of Sydney, and drew heavily from elements of Herschell Lewis US-styled gore. It was rolling red with screams, rats and deliriously wide-eyed close ups.
Bourke’s Night of Fear had originally been intended as the pilot episode in a series called Fright, and for a while the concept had the press crowing: “Australia’s 4 Television Networks are scrambling to buy a locally made horror series featuring some of the most terrifying scenes ever filmed for television” bayed the Herald. But in 1973 the project was banned by censors on grounds of “extreme obscenity”. Producer Rod Hay indignantly claimed it was yet another example of “victimisation of local product”. Although he did concede to the Mirror that the film was “horrific and bizarre and that children should not be allowed to see it.”
Having tossed Night of Fear among the pigeons, Bourke and Hay bravely followed up with their 1890’s fable Inn of the Damned; a gregarious mix of sex, carnage and a bit of Cobb & Co. history. The Grand Guignol gothic is set loose around the traps of an colonial Inn, but not helped by dialogue evidently dictated upon the slips of delirium. Yet the film’s indulgences are a frothy addition to that 1970s cocktail of terror – by today’s standards its conceits seem almost luxurious. Outlandish sex, violence and thuggery; all phrased in a sort of mismanaged opulence – the kind that beguiles but never quite bores. It is an intriguing work, shackled somewhere in the pantry of the greater gore masters. Bourke passed away in 2002 and while his work has also sunk into relative obscurity Night of Fear and Inn of the Damned can be found on DVD.
Others were meanwhile crafting different curios. The esoteric Picnic at Hanging Rock has virtually been touted as Australia’s answer to the Sistine Chapel. But Weir’s lesser-celebrated visions lend some seriously black gravity to Australia’s horror heritage. The Last Wave, in which a lawyer involved in an Aboriginal murder case inadvertently discovers Sydney is to be obliterated by the ocean, is sheer apocalypse. It perfectly translates the eerie spiritualism of the outback to the blank canvas of the city. David Gulpilil is mesmerising as the aboriginal man haunting Richard Chamberlain’s head and slowly undoing his life. The film exudes disaster.
By contrast Weir’s surreal 1974 film The Cars that Ate Paris – about a car-obsessed town where locals slaughter passing motorists – is an absurd gem. It is set in a small NSW country town where doctors perform brain surgery on crash victims, turning them into ‘veggies’, while the rest of the community scavenge their car wrecks and cobble together the hybrid hot-rods that ultimately run riot in the blood fuelled finale. This was the first film to ever be funded by the Australian Film Development Corporation, and it made a good start of things by receiving acclaim at The Cannes Film Festival. Channel 4 Films recently claimed Weir’s vision of Australian isolationism “paved the way for Mad Max and countless other pictures.”
“It wasn’t until Carrie and The Exorcist came along that the horror really began to take off in Australia,” says scriptwriter Everett DeRoche. “That was what got the investors interested. It wasn’t until those films came out that things began to heat up commercially for horror movies.”
If there is anyone well placed to talk about the emergence of Australian horror during this period, it is DeRoche. Together with Producer Anthony Ginnane he helmed what must be regarded as Australia’s most prolific periods of cinema by any standard. DeRoche’s list of work includes Patrick, Long Weekend, Harlequin, Snapshot, Razorback, Roadgames and Link amongst others.
“Horror always came naturally to me” says DeRoche. “I’ve always been fascinated by the dark side. And all my kids are the same way. They put it down the fact that I’m actually from Maine. There’s something innately creepy about Maine. Stephen King has captured it quite well in his work.” Having grown up in the US Everett believes he may have had a certain advantage at the time through noticing the fears and obsessions taken for granted in the Australian lifestyle. “I tended to think the best Australian films were made by outsiders. Things like Walkabout and Wake in Fright. Maybe immigrants tend to notice things that locals miss or something.”
Patrick (1976), directed by Richard Franklin, remains one of DeRoche’s most memorable excursions. “One hundred and sixty pounds of limp meat hanging from a brain!” lectures the doctor, plying his scalpel through the skull of a squirming frog to illustrate the point. “Can you imagine anything less aware than that?” This is, of course, the story of a sexually repressed psychotic wreaking havoc from the grips of a coma. But while the film (hopefully) embraces a more universal theme, DeRoche says that living in Australia did ultimately inform the way he approached his work. “I probably ended up having more knowledge of Australia than I did of the United States. Growing up in Southern California, if we went anywhere we’d go to Southern Mexico to go surfing. Consequently my geographic knowledge of the States was very limited, whereas I’d seen quite a bit of Australia. And I think that’s changed the way I’ve approached some of my stories. I’ve always been impressed by the fact that you can jump in your car and drive for half an hour and get seriously lost. I guess this happens in other places too, but it somehow seems more apparent in Australia.”
None more so than in Roadgames. Penned by DeRoche shortly after Patrick, this film is considered by many to be director Richard Franklin’s Hitchockian masterpiece. Essentially Rear Window recalibrated to the windscreen of a truck crossing the Nullarbor, the film is a triumph of suspense and menace wrapped in the brooding mettle of the outback. It is a testament to the sadly unsung talents of late Franklin, who eventually based himself in the States to direct the genre films for which he demonstrated such flair (among them Psycho II). “All of these films did better overseas” says DeRoche. “They weren’t well received in Australia at the time. I don’t know how long they lasted at the Box Office. But it wasn’t long.”
Which brings us to Razorback. Jaws-meets-Priscilla when a rabid boar tears the bejesus out of a threadbare desert community. The schizophrenic play between Hollywood and Australian sensibilities was never more evident than when the beer-swilling locals prove scarier than the beast. But DeRoche has grown fond of Razorback over the years. “At the time I wasn’t that thrilled with the script” he reflects. “I actually wasn’t all that excited about doing a movie about a giant critter. But Russell Mulcahy came along and gave it a kind of style that wasn’t there in the script. So it’s kind of gratifying when I’ve written a less than brilliant script and it’s able to be made into something more than it was.” Razorback has gone on to become a cult classic.
THE 1980s AND BEYOND: HELL AND HIGH WATER
By the mid 80s director Brian Trenchard-Smith had also became a notorious name, creating such splatter pieces as Turkey Shoot in which prisoners from a futuristic prison were turned loose in the scrubland for a frenzied manhunt. “A sadistic, ultra-violent catalogue of sickening horrors” dourly noted David Stratton. Tarantino agreed – he is a huge fan. Dead End Drive In, in which marauding cavalcades of youth are barricaded in an old drive-in cinema by the government, remains his favourite Trenchard-Smith outing.
Other notable horror films from this time include Rolf De Heer’s Incident at Raven’s Gate where aliens invade a farm (perhaps our answer to Repo Man) – the engaging script and performances, particularly from young Steve Vidler, make this an overlooked entry. As is Alex Proyas’ Spirits of the Air, Gremlins in the Clouds, where a brother and sister wandering a bat infested, post apocalyptic desert while being dogged by a ‘stranger’. Cassandra, a film about a psychic girl whose subconscious memories raise hell in Melbourne, is also memorable.
Outback Vampires (vampires set up terrifying shop – in the outback!) and the slasher-derivative Nightmares signalled the more sardonic arrival of the 80s and 90s. Thickly glossed in schlock, often pushing social parody to the point of comedy, a host of splatter films stick to this era like mud; Body Melt (a flesh eating virus sets a community into literal melt down), Bloodlust (three vampires sluice their bloody way through Melbourne’s criminal underbelly), Bloodmoon (schoolgirls carved up), Cut (actresses carved up) and, lastly, the disastrous bluster of Houseboat Horror (everyone, including rock band, carved up).
Wolf Creek perhaps marked a grittier convergence of this disparate lineage. While the story could have come from the frontal lobe of Terry Bourke, it is the dark weaving of the land as a character that makes the film so chillingly effective. Says McLean: “Horror has to keep being reinvented. It keeps needing to be transformed. You wait for horror movies that test how scared you can possibly be and that use cinema to show you something terrifying that you’ve never seen before, and suddenly the bar is set at that level.”
That new level has resulted in an overwhelming resurgence of passion from a new generation of writers and directors. And that apocalyptic stage has now gone global. Shortly after Wolf Creek was brought by the Weinsteins, Saw found its offshore funding and on to make more than $55 million in the US alone. More recently, after a successful debut at Cannes, Andrew Trauki’s Black Water (an intense, lean tale involving three people and a salt-water croc) has sold to 76 countries. “The horror market provides the perfect resources for the new film maker to plunder” says Trauki. “You don’t need big stars, and a lot of the time you don’t need a huge budget. For new talent it’s an accessible entry genre.” Released around the same time as Greg McLean’s similarly themed Rogue, Black Water unfortunately received minor local release.
Other screwturners from the new guard include the colonial cannibalism of Michael Brougham’s Dying Breed and Jamie Clink’s Storm Warning, a DeRoche story about a couple tortured by out-of-towners. Clink has also just finished shooting a remake of his 1976 horror classic Lost Weekend, with Claudia Karvan and Jim Caviezel playing the holidaying couple terrorised by wild bushland. In a testament to the original, Clink asked DeRoche not to alter the script. “Although I had to find the original script first” adds DeRoche. “There was only one dog-eared copy – this is long before computers – with pencil notes all through it. But the acting is probably the most dramatic thing to have changed. The standard has been raised quite a bit since the 70s. Having Claudia Karvan has been a real bonus. Also, the location is a lot better. One thing I didn’t quite like about the original is that it looked too pretty. This time around we used Wilson’s Promontory. The weather is a lot darker and more changeable.”
This renewal of interest may indicate that our horror cinema is finally getting the reappraisal generally reserved for Italian, European and American varietals. “I’d like to know were all these people were thirty years ago!” laughs De Roche. One senses that it has indeed been a long road. And amongst the pitfalls, screams and general plundering of obsession, from the sublime to the perverse and derelict, the plight of the Australian Horror Movie has itself endured tremendous adversity. Is this the real overarching ‘tradition’ spanning the lengths of our horror screen heritage then? Perhaps. Regardless, until the retrospective festivals finally catch up, many of our national horror obscurities are definitely worth digging from the vaults. Or at least the dustier shelves of the video shop.
By Geoff Stanton