The EOFFTV World of Horror: Australia
The Australian horror film is a curious beast. Unlike the genre films that emerged from the United States, the UK and parts of Europe, there has never been any real concerted effort to establish a strand of genre film-making and there have been few specialist directors and fewer stars - indeed three of the biggest "Australian" movie stars of all time are nothing of the sort; Mel Gibson was born in New York, Nicole Kidman in Hawaii and Naomi Watts in Sussex, England.
Although Australia has been making horror films since the silent era, some of which have highly regarded both at home and around the world, there has never been a "brand" image for Australian like the Universal or Hammer films, or a particular sub-genre that one might identify as particularly Australian, as the Italians had with the gialli and the Germans with the krimi.
Those that have been made however are often very good indeed, some even excellent, and there is a very definite ambience to them that is largely missing from genre films made elsewhere. In fact many of the better ones give the distinct impression that they simply couldn't have been made anywhere else.
Again unlike the American, British and European traditions, Australian cinema largely ignored horror during the silent era. There were the occasional horror tinged thrillers, like The Bells (1911), The Strangler's Grip (1912) and The Face at the Window (1919) and a couple of ghost stories, The Guyra Ghost Mystery (1921) and Fisher's Ghost (1924) though that was pretty much it. Early Australian cinema had little truck with the Fantastique, preferring instead tales of bushrangers (a genre that was actually banned in some regions), war films and "'ocker" comedies.
Other than another version of The Bells, The Burgomeister (1935) and the genre TV series I Have Been Here Before (1964), home grown horror was absent from the Australian screen until the 1970s when horror films, and the Australian cinema industry in general, underwent a remarkable renaissance.
In 1969 Phillip Adams wrote an influential report for the Australia Council Film Committee in which he recommended that recommended that the government action of Prime Minister John Gorton should act to help revitalise the ailing industry. Gorton responded by setting up the Australian Film and Television Development Corporation (later renamed the Australian Film Commission) and established a fund for experimental films. A subsequent regime established the Australian Film and Television School.
Life suddenly became a lot easier for film-makers and the floodgates about to open thanks to the way that distribution channels had been reorganised. The breakthrough film, for both the genre and the industry as a whole, was a borderline entry but one that proved remarkably successful and influential, Ted Kotcheff's (ironically a Canadian, not a native talent) Wake in Fright (1971), released overseas to great critical and commercial success as Outback. This coruscating look at life in the rural depths of the Australian wilderness found less favour back home and it's not hard to understand why - it's view of small town life is far from flattering and the infamous kangaroo hunt sequence is easily one of the most disturbing things ever filmed.
Wake in Fright established many of the themes that would be explored almost obsessively throughout the great 70s Australian film revival and elements of it would later recycled to great effect in genre films like The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Summerfield (1977) and Razorback (1984).
Among the plethora of talent that seemed to emerge as if from nowhere during the early years of the 70s was Peter Weir, arguably the country's most famous and influential director. After the short chiller Homesdale (1971), Weir took on the main concerns of Wake in Fright (the darker side of life in an outback town) and took them to surreal extremes in The Cars That Ate Paris, a bizarre fable about disaffected youth terrorising the township of Paris in their souped-up death cars. Weir followed this marvellous black comedy with his undoubted masterpiece, the haunting, creepy and sensuous Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a film that had such an impact overseas that it's still impossible to this day to hold a credible discussion about Australian cinema without repeated references to it.
Alternately disturbing, beautiful, frustrating and mystifying it's an enigmatic and troubling film that still retains its quiet, dignified force even today. Weir made a further foray into the world of the supernatural with the strangely under-appreciated The Last Wave (1977), one of the surprisingly rare attempts to explore Aboriginal mythology on a horror context, before setting sail for Hollywood to craft crowd-pleasing blockbusters like Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) among others.
And he wasn't alone in heading for the bigger money and better resources of Hollywood - one of the sad facts of life in the Australian film industry has been the steady exodus of top directors, among them George Miller (Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)), Richard Franklin (Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981)) and Philip Noyce (Dead Calm (1989)).
Of those that stayed at home, the most prolific names in the genre were not those of directors or actors but of a writer, Everett De Roche, and a producer, Anthony I. Ginanne. They were responsible for many of the fine Australian horrors that were made in the late 70s and early 80s, the golden age of Aussie Horror: Ginnane produced the likes of Thirst (1979), The Survivor (1981), Turkey Shoot (1981) and Strange Behavior (1981); De Roche penned Long Weekend (1978), Roadgames and Razorback (1984); and together they worked on Harlequin (1980), Patrick (1978) and Snapshot (1979).
Few of the directors who made Australian horror during this period made sizable careers out of the genre, often moving on to other things very quickly. Jim Sharman made Summer of Secrets (1976) and the excellent The Night, the Prowler (1978) after scoring a hit with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) but his career seemed to stall after the failure of that film's follow-up Shock Treatment (1981).
Terry Bourke looked for a while like he might have become Australia's leading horror auteur after his Night of Fear (1973), rescued from it's fate as a rejected TV pilot, and Inn of the Damned (1975). Sadly his subsequent slasher misfire Lady, Stay Dead (1982) sent him scurrying back to television where his once promising career faded away.
As the 80s progressed, Australian horror went the way of the more venerated Italian history and the impetus of the late 70s started to peter out. Where the late 70s / early 80s releases had benefited from a global boom in the fledgeling home video market that voraciously demanded new titles from anywhere and everywhere, the late 80s and 90s saw increasingly generic Australian releases struggling to find a place in a saturated market. There were still gems to be found (Celia (1988), Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (1988), Dead Calm (1989)) but the best years were long gone.
Among the best of the early 90s crop were the bizarre Bad Boy Bubby (1993), Tracey Moffatt's anthology of Aborigine derived chillers Bedevil (1993) and the exuberant gore fest of Philip Brophy's Body Melt (1993), in which a mad doctor (incongruously played by Ian Smith, better known in Australia and the UK as the God-bothering Harold Bishop from hit TV soap Neighbours (1985 - )) releases a lethal drug into a suburban community that brings about the ailment of the title.
Body Melt was one of the increasing number of gore films that were rapidly replacing the more considered and atmospheric works of the 70s. This was due in no small part to the worldwide success of Peter Jackson from neighbouring New Zealand. Long before his astonishing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson was turning out cheap but cheerful blood-soaked taste-challengers like Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989) and the extremely gory Braindead (1992). His success seemed to act as a catalyst for a new generation of Antipodean directors, among them the Spierig brothers, Philip and Michael (Undead (2003)) and Craig Godfrey ( Back From the Dead (1996)).
In the late 1990s, a new force emerged in Australian film-making. Village Roadshow had in fact been around in one guise or another since 1954, initially running a drive-in cinema in the Melbourne suburb of Croydon. They grew rapidly, acquiring a string of "hardtop" cinemas and set up a distribution wing in the 1960's. During the 70s, they began producing their own films too and by 1989 were powerful enough to be able to buy out the ailing De Laurentis Entertainment Limited.
In the 90s, they started entering into co-production deals with US
companies, resulting in a string of teen-friendly horrors that showed
absolutely no sign of Australian uniqueness at all, among them Disturbing
Behavior (1998), Ghost
Ship (2002), Queen
of the Damned (2002) and Darkness
Falls (2003). There remains a thriving underground and
low-budget film culture at work in Australia that seems committed to
keeping Australian horror alive but even the most ardent of admirers
of this unique and valuable film culture - and we here at EOFFTV are
big fans of long-standing - would be forced to admit that the glory
days are long behind us. But if you've yet to dip your toes in the dark
world of Australian horror, there's never been a better time with a
whole rake of the best titles now available on DVD. Trust us, you'll
find it was worth your while.
Wake in Fright
Inn of the Damned
Summer of Secrets
The Night Nurse
The Night, the
Lady, Stay Dead
at Castle House
Next of Kin
of the Civil Dead
Out of the
Incident at Raven's Gate
The Fury Within
Queen of the
Last Updated: 2 April, 2010
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