Dead Heart: Australia’s Horror Cinema

October 31, 2018
To celebrate Halloween, we take a dark, dangerous tour down the strange series of backroads and dead-ends that is the history of the Australian horror film. Strap in tight…this could get scary.

GENESIS

The horror movie is one of cinema’s hardiest creations. “Horror is not as cyclical as other genres,” says Everett De Roche, prolific scribe of many of Australia’s seminal horror flicks. “There’s always room for a good horror movie.” Over the last hundred years, the genre’s adaptability has indeed wrought a canon of films driven by obsession, fear, shocks and terror. Australia has proved that it has more than enough raw material – our wide brown land is indeed plagued with many dreads.

Our history was often scripted by pioneers who intended to subdue the land under harvests of principle and promise, but instead struck out for death and disaster. In fact, from the moment that the British declared Australia “empty”, we were all headed for trouble. It is in this atmosphere that the Aussie horror movie has thrived and grown like bracket creep. It is the sheer space that stalks us, and a profound sense of alienation has long simmered in the darker core of our national consciousness.

Director Greg McLean acknowledged as much when he stepped onto the barren crater of the Wolf Creek location. “The implication is that there is a force in this place, and it potentially manifests itself through dark, lonely characters who are thinking about things that they shouldn’t be thinking about”. And while Australia’s horror films have been occasionally laconic (Incident At Raven’s Gate), sometimes chilling (The Last Wave), often brutal (Charlie’s Farm) and frequently bizarre (The Howling III: The Marsupials), they’re all rooted in the sturdy disquiet born of early colonial misgivings and, more often than not, they keep the Censorship Office open for business.

HORROR IN DISGUISE: 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 3,000 feet of freshly pressed 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 spectator. The show was a triumph.

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 that it had raised a golem. When The Salvation Army was taken over in 1910 by more puritanical leaders, the film department was quickly dismantled. Full kudos must be given to the Army’s new insurgents: they clearly understood the genre’s potential.

CREATING THE ARCHETYPE: THE BLOODY BUSHRANGER

Meanwhile, in lieu of burning saints, a mad parade of bushrangers, scoundrels and assorted villains flocked to fill the breach. The Story Of The Kelly Gang (1906), arguably 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 that 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 flipside character who haunts The Big Australian Empty…along with powerhouse crocs and bristling hell-hogs.

“Dread itself is pretty generic,” says Andrew Traucki, who co-wrote and directed 2007’s killer croc film Black Water, and the equally arresting 2010 shark flick, The Reef. “But there’s a vastness in Australia that is filled with nasty possibilities – particularly in terms of deadly animals, killers, disaster and so on. The size of it can be pretty scary. In terms of marketability, we’re like the last frontier. That’s certainly how America and Europe see us. And also, I suppose, most Australian city dwellers.”

It’s no coincidence that this aspect of our heritage lent itself so supremely to the horror film. By 1907, the bloody bushranger film was so popular that 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, and not the church, that 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 cutthroats”, as one impassioned letter to The Bulletin put it. This protester suggested that the reasons for the prohibition were disingenuous: “It is easier and cheaper to import the American gore-scape 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!’”

It was to be more than seventy years before the bushranger was resurrected with Tony Richardson’s ill advised 1970 adventure Ned Kelly (featuring Mick Jagger in a rare acting role) and Philippe Mora’s magnificently violent Mad Dog Morgan (1976), which was also notable for imported star 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 film Ghosts…Of The Civil Dead, described by UK’s Time Out Magazine as “presenting some of the most horrifying images ever shown on screen. A masterpiece in the order of Goya.”

A NEW HORROR VIOLENCE IN CINEMA: PART 1

“I grew up watching horror movies like Jaws, Alien and The Exorcist,” says Wolf Creek director Greg McLean. “They were the films that I was in love with. When I first started writing screenplays, I just thought, ‘I’d really love to do one of those films – a big, old-fashioned suspense thriller – in Australia. Why shouldn’t we have a really thrilling horror story set in Australia?” The screen, like nature, abhors a vacuum. 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’re few and far between.

One notable exception was the 1924 feature Fisher’s Ghost. This story involved the ghost of a murdered farmer who haunts a creek in the Western Sydney suburb of Campelltown. Authorities deemed the film “too gruesome for the public.” The public disagreed – it was a smash at the local box office. But such excursions were ghost stories more than pure horror. They were yet to fully careen into the slippery arena of the maniac.

With the onset of World War II, Australia’s Cinesound ground feature production to a halt. 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, and gloating about a golden age of prosperity. A generation of directors, writers and technicians practiced their art through the production of these newsreels. The tightly sutured reality of post-war Australia, however, was about to undergo a well-documented haemorrhage.

“Horror has always been a reaction to what comes before,” says Black Water director Andrew Traucki. “Being a filmmaker makes you really aware of the zeitgeist of the time. These days we have Youtube and the internet, and everything we see is semi-real. Reality now cuts across all forms of film and storytelling. Today the realism of it is pushing us towards another new sense of reality. We’re always pushing it further each time. Horror has always been a reaction to what has come before.”

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 the camera about violence on screen. It comes as a shock then when a gunshot splits his head apart like a piece of 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 in the documentary category.

THE HORROR PUSH

By the seventies, television had begun opening the population’s eyes to the abominable. With political assassination buried in the collective conscience, Vietnam unfurling in the living room, and idealistic abandon exploding like a landmine at every step, what television couldn’t handle, cinema ultimately dined on. In the US, cinema screens were now luminous with gore. So when the new Whitlam Government offered a subsidy to the film industry in 1970, we fixed our hands on grimier possibilities. By the mid seventies, what horror writer and commentator Robert Hood calls the “Australian Horror Push” was in full bludgeon.

THE HORROR AUTEUR: TERRY BOURKE

“Horror films have suddenly become the best money making vehicle,” producer Rod Hay told The Daily Telegraph in 1973. “They also provide an excellent opportunity for technical excellence by photographers, make-up artists and effects experts.”

Inspired by the gorier flicks coming out of the US, Australia had its share of horror purveyors. The inimitable Terry Bourke was one. Bourke’s first feature had been a “softcore sex romp” set in Singapore, but after judiciously eyeing the US market, he set about creating a more salacious brand of outrage. Bourke teamed up with producer Rod Hay to form Terryrod Productions, and together they conceived their first project. Night Of Fear was a homespun shocker in 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 Herschel Gordon 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 four 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 that it was yet another example of “victimisation of local product”. He did concede to The Mirror, however, 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 a colonial inn, with outlandish sex, violence and thuggery in abundance. It’s an intriguing work, shackled somewhere in the pantry of the greater gore masters. Bourke passed away in 2002, and while his work (which also includes the 1981 slasher flick Lady Stay Dead, as well as a number of non-horror films) has sunk into relative obscurity, Night Of Fear and Inn Of The Damned can still be found on DVD.

NOT QUITE HORROR: PETER WEIR

Meanwhile, it wasn’t all about rats, rape and cannibalism. Other filmmakers were crafting different curios. The esoteric Picnic At Hanging Rock has virtually been touted as Australia’s answer to The Sistine Chapel. Director Peter Weir’s lesser-celebrated visions, however, lend seriously black gravity to Australia’s horror heritage. 1977’s The Last Wave, in which a lawyer involved in an Aboriginal murder case inadvertently discovers that 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 is an absurd gem. It’s 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 film’s blood-fuelled finale. This was the first film funded by The Australian Film Development Corporation, and it represented a good start by receiving acclaim at The Cannes Film Festival. Channel 4 Films recently claimed that Weir’s vision of Australian isolationism “paved the way for Mad Max and countless other pictures.”


THE SCREENWRITER: EVERETT DE ROCHE

“It wasn’t until Carrie and The Exorcist came along that horror really began to take off in Australia,” says scriptwriter Everett De Roche. “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 De Roche. Together with producer Anthony I. Ginnane, he was involved with what must be regarded as Australia’s most prolific periods of cinema by any standard. De Roche’s list of work includes Patrick, Long Weekend, Harlequin, Snapshot, Razorback, Roadgames and Link, amongst others. “Horror always came naturally to me,” says De Roche. “I’ve always been fascinated by the dark side. And all my kids are the same way. They put it down to 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 that he may have had a certain advantage in that he noticed the fears and obsessions taken for granted in the Australian lifestyle. “The best Australian films were made by outsiders,” he says. “I’m thinking about films like Walkabout and Wake In Fright [directed by Brit Nicolas Roeg and Canadian Ted Kotcheff, respectively]. Maybe immigrants tend to notice things that locals miss.”

Patrick (1976), directed by the late Richard Franklin, remains one of De Roche’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 the story of a sexually repressed psychotic wreaking havoc from the grips of a coma. But while the film embraces a more universal theme, De Roche says that living in Australia did ultimately inform the way in which he approached his work. “I probably ended up having more knowledge of Australia than I did of the United States,” he says. “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 in Australia. This happens in other places too, but it somehow seems more apparent in Australia.”

None more so than in Roadgames. Penned by De Roche shortly after Patrick, this is considered by many to be director Richard Franklin’s Hitchcockian 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’s a testament to the sadly unsung talents of the 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 De Roche. “They weren’t well received in Australia.”

Which brings us to Razorback, which features a rabid boar tearing 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. De Roche has grown fond of Razorback over the years. “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 [director] Russell Mulcahy came along and gave it a style that wasn’t there in the script. It’s strangely 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-eighties, director Brian Trenchard-Smith had also become a notorious name, creating such splatter pieces as the notorious Turkey Shoot, in which prisoners from a futuristic prison are turned loose in the scrubland for a frenzied manhunt. “A sadistic, ultra-violent catalogue of sickening horrors,” dourly noted David Stratton. Another notable horror film from this time is Rolf De Heer’s Incident At Raven’s Gate, where aliens invade a farm; the engaging script and performances, particularly from young Steve Vidler, make this an overlooked entry. As is Alex Proyas’ Spirits Of The Air, Gremlins Of The Clouds, where a brother and sister wander a bat-infested, post-apocalyptic desert while being dogged by a “stranger”. Cassandra, 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 eighties and nineties.  Thickly glossed in schlock, and 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 sends a community into literal meltdown), 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 a rock band, carved up).

2005’s Wolf Creek marked a grittier convergence of this disparate lineage, and also started something of a mini-industry in itself, inspiring novels, sequels, and two TV series. While the story could have come from Terry Bourke, it’s the dark weaving of the land as a character that makes the film so chillingly effective. “Horror has to keep being reinvented,” says director Greg McLean. “It needs 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. Suddenly the bar is set at that level.”

Shortly after Wolf Creek was famously brought by the Weinsteins, Saw – created by local talents Leigh Whannell and James Wan – found its offshore funding and went on to make more than $55 million in the US alone. After a successful debut at Cannes, Andrew Traucki’s Black Water (an intense tale involving three people and a saltwater croc) sold to 76 countries. “The horror market provides the perfect resources for the new filmmaker to plunder” says Traucki. “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 only a minor local release.

Other screw-turners from this initial new guard of the first decade of the 2000s included the colonial cannibalism of Jody Dwyer’s Dying Breed, The Spierig Brothers’ zombie splatter-fest Undead, and Jamie Blanks’ straight-to-DVD shocker Storm Warning, a De Roche story about a refined couple tortured by a group of backwoods drug dealers. Blanks also scrapped together a virtually unseen remake of the 1976 horror classic Long Weekend (written by De Roche and directed by Colin Eggleston) with Claudia Karvan and Jim Caviezel playing the holidaying couple terrorised by their natural surrounds. In a testament to the original, Blanks asked De Roche not to alter the script. “I had to find the original script first,” laughs the writer. “There was only one dog-eared copy – this was long before computers, mind you – with pencil notes all through it. The acting is probably the most dramatic thing to have changed. The standard has been raised quite a bit since the seventies.”

HORROR NOW…

Helped immeasurably by Mark Hartley’s 2008 documentary, Not Quite Hollywood (which famously celebrated local genre filmmaking of the 1970s and 1980s, and pretty much coined the phrase, “Ozploitation” via interviewee and fan, Quentin Tarantino), our horror cinema has finally received at least minor form of reappraisal. “I’d like to know where all these people were all those years ago!” laughs De Roche.

“The talent is here,” enthuses Leigh Whannell – co-creator of Saw, star of Dying Breed, and director of the acclaimed locally shot sci-fi horror, Upgrade – about horror filmmaking in Australia. “I would just love for the funding bodies and the film community to have the confidence to go, ‘We can do the shit out of this. We’re not a poor second cousin to Hollywood. We’re just as good, if not better.’”

What started with Wolf Creek and Undead and Dying Breed has become something of a minor flood, with filmmakers like Kiah Roache-Turner (Wyrmwood), Carlo Ledesma (The Tunnel), The Cairnes Brothers (100 Bloody Acres), Ben Howling & Yolande Ramke (Cargo), Sean Byrne (The Loved Ones), Chris Sun (Charlie’s Farm, Boar), Jon Hewitt (Acolytes), Daniel Armstrong (Tarnation), Ben Young (Hounds Of Love), Daniel Krige (Redd Inc.), The Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers, Winchester), John V. Soto (Needle), Mark Hartley (the remake of Patrick) and, of course, Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) flying the tattered, bloody flag for local horror.

Dying Breed director Jody Dwyer agrees that there has been a shift within the local filmmaking scene. “There’s a growing movement within the industry to produce – and let me be careful about how I say this – more commercially viable films that appeal to a majority of the cinema going public. We’ve often fallen into the trap of making culturally relevant films which are beautiful but which also aren’t really meeting the needs of entertainment for the movie going public. There’s a gap, and there needs to be a re-branding of Australian films as exciting and dynamic.”

Charlie’s Farm and Boar director, Chris Sun, sees horror as the perfect genre for Australia’s passionate and ingenious shooters. “The awesome thing about Aussie filmmakers is that we don’t do it for the money…well, most of us,” the director laughs. “We just want to make motion pictures and tell awesome stories. Still, at the end of the day, it’s a business, and money has to be made so we can make more films. I’m blessed because I have investors that trust my vision, and that trust me as a horror director, so my future is looking good. For now, I’m happy working in Australia and bringing name talent down under and killing them alongside Aussie talent! Knowing that at the end of my shoot there will be FX blood everywhere just brightens up my day! It makes me want to make more horror films and kill as many famous people as I can during my career,” Sun laughs.

For The Loved Ones director, Sean Byrne, the formula for making horror here should be no different to the way that we approach filmmaking in general. “There’s a market for bold films in Australia,” he told FilmInk. “All of our big films – Strictly Ballroom, Priscilla, Muriel’s Wedding, Two Hands, Chopper, Somersault, Wolf Creek – were risk takers. Whenever we’ve tried to replicate a success, we’ve fallen a little short. It’s hard enough to make a breakthrough film in this country, let alone to replicate one. It’s safer to put your money on the nose rather than to make the ‘safe’ each-way bet. There’s a market for horror in this country, but not if it’s just a tick-the-box replica of Wolf Creek.  Australian filmgoers have proven that they like to be taken by surprise.”

There is also something undeniably prurient and unquestionably “outlaw” about the horror genre, which is part of what makes it so appealing. “When I told people that I was making a horror film, some of them looked at me as if I said that I was making porn…it was offensive to them,” The Babadook director, Jennifer Kent, laughed to FilmInk. “If someone asked me if I’d prefer to watch a Cannes-winning film set in Romania about whatever, or a horror film, I’d probably choose the horror film,” she laughs. “I love all kinds of horror films. I see the genre’s immense worth, and I get annoyed when people have that sense of snobbery about it. When it’s done well, horror cinema can really move people, and it can also address all manner of issues. There can be a lot of depth to it, but because there are a lot of crap horror films, people dismiss the genre. But there are also a lot of crap dramas made, and a lot of crappy comedies, yet we don’t give up on those genres.”

The Australian horror film has walked a long and treacherous road. And amongst the pitfalls and screams, 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? Perhaps. Regardless, many of our national horror obscurities are definitely worth digging up from the vaults…or at least the darker, dustier corners of the internet.

Comments

  1. anthony buckley

    Geoff Stanton’s ‘Dead Heart’ is an excellent piece but it is a little misleading to say”Between 1959 and 1966 not one Australian feature film,Horror or otherwise was produced. Not quite true. 1959 saw actors and crews busy on Lee Robinson’s co-pro “The Restless and the Damned” ,Leslie Norman’s “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll,Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach”,Harry Watts “The Siege of Pinchgut”(Ealing’s last film) 1960: Dick Ross’s “Shadow of a Boomerang”,Fred Zinneman’s “The Sundowners” and Jim Jeffrey’s “Bungala Boys” 1962,only one Andrew Steane’s “They Found a Cave”.Only two films in 1965,Giorgio Mangiamelle’s “Clay”and Joe McCormick’s “Funny Things Happen Down Under”.
    Cinesound’s last feature was “Dad Rudd M. P. in 1940 but hosted the production of Charles Chauvel’s ” 40,000 Horseman” and “The Rats of Tobruk” as well as other indendent productions,resuming their own production with “Smithy” in 1946

    Mention of “Fisher’s Ghost” brings back memories of my last afternoon tea with Raymond Longford in 1956 when he brought out his script of “Fisher’s Ghost” ‘Son’ he said ‘this was my best film by far ,I wanted to remake it as a talkie’
    A print of the film is known to have exchanged hands between two collectors about 30 years ago.

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