Top Horror Down Under

An article penned for in 2009:


As the guillotine falls on the noughties, Emma Westwood ticks off some of the noteworthy Australian horror releases of 2009.

The Land Down Under (ie. Australia) is known for many things – Vegemite™, The Crocodile Hunter (RIP), kangaroos and funny accents – but horror movies are something that has slipped from this nation’s rollcall of assets. Sure, Greg McLean’s sado-slash-fest Wolf Creek (2005) got some tongues a-wagging for awhile and the decades have been dotted with notable examples, the likes of Long Weekend (1978), Turkey Shoot (1982) et al all colouring an intriguing, if sparse, back catalogue. But, partly due to a government-instituted, tax-payer-backed funding system that supports ‘Australian’ content over genre film (that’s a whole other rant), horror seems to have been pushed to the wayside.

Sitting down recently to chew the fat with Fangoria correspondent Michael Helms revealed an underground horror movement in Australia that’s pushing his Fangorian responsibilities to the limit. For a small country, Helms confesses to receiving three no-budget horror flicks per month. Yeah, right, that seems like meagre rations to the 30-odd per month produced in North America, but for this big-on-land-small-on-population island, it’s an astounding figure. These feature films are also all well-intentioned, variable-quality, but nonetheless evidence of an underground movement that continues to balloon.

Amid the DVD dubs Helms chose to pimp my way were labour-of-love gore-fare like Cinemaphobia, Slaughtered, and Damned by Dawn. In particular, Cinemaphobia gets my vote as an accomplished piece of low-budget ham with a nicely defined and characterised ensemble (in fact, a whole cinema full – no mean feat) and some inventive death scenarios, including the cojones to make a kid one of the first to fall victim to ‘mirrorface’.

As far as the big(ger) releases go, some not-so-shabby Australian horror has crept into the film distribution circuit over the last year, some more warmly received than others and some more fervently hyped, such as the Spierig ‘Undead’ Brothers upcoming vampire flick – Daybreakers – plastered on a Fangoria banner near you. It is here that I’d like to regale you with four distinctive and recent examples of an under-appreciated genre in an effort to provide evidence that Australian horror is anything but dead and buried – nay, it may actually be alive and kicking.

THE LOVED ONES dir. Sean Byrne

Partially financed through the Melbourne International Film Festival, The Loved Ones got its world premiere at the aforementioned event in July last year, followed by a screening at Toronto FF, although the official release date in its country of origin isn’t slated until March this year.

The debut feature of writer-director Sean Byrne, this is an oddball teen-slasher flick that steers the concept of hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-scorned into new territory with a peppering of influence from De Palma’s Carrie. The action largely plays out under the eerie glittering of a mirror ball where a moody young buck finds himself way too closely acquainted with a screwy family unit that would feel at home in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – just ditch the chainsaw and replace it with a power drill, and swap grandpa for another silent type called ‘Bright Eyes’.

There’s an intriguing, shifting tone to The Loved Ones that makes it difficult to categorise. Some storytelling elements appear to be red herrings, leading the viewer down the proverbial garden path, but while also beefing out and ornamenting the broader social context of the film. It’s certainly an entertaining investigation into psychopathic behaviour, and one that’s not afraid to find humour in horrifying situations.

LAKE MUNGO dir. Joel Anderson

Dwarfed by that little film that brought in big box office returns, Paranormal Activity, writer/director Joel Anderson’s debut film Lake Mungo appeared then promptly disappeared from Australian cinema screens… then got picked up as a North American remake to be released in 2011. Bizarre.

The comparisons to Paranormal Activity are obvious: a found footage movie about ghostly apparitions. But that’s where all comparisons end, with Lake Mungo being the far more complex film of the two taking the viewer through a number of plot twists and turns that miraculously lead to a logical and satisfying conclusion. Arguably, it is also the scarier movie, making even the deserted, twilight footage of its real-life Australian regional setting seem very imposing and creepy.

Presented mockumentary-style, the neighbours, friends and family of a drowned young woman relate to camera their suspicions regarding her untimely death. The mother is adamant her daughter continues to inhabit their house so the girl’s brother rigs up a digital camera in an effort to record the probable haunting. What they unearth is more than just a restless spirit, a web of buried secrets rising to the surface. Great stuff.

COFFIN ROCK dir. Rupert Glasson

What? Coffin Rock is another debut film for an Australian writer-director? You betcha. It seems like a pattern is emerging here for a new breed of Aussie filmmakers choosing horror as their weapon of choice, although Coffin Rock boasts the dab hand of producer David Lightfoot who has made his mark on the genre with the likes of Wolf Creek.

Don’t let the Rob Zombie-esque name of the film fool you (the title of the town in which the action takes place, if you’re wondering) – Coffin Rock is more thriller than schlock-horror, recalling elements of Fatal Attraction but swapping the gender roles. This time round, a young drifter with an Irish lilt falls foolishly in lust with a ‘cougar’ who’s having problems conceiving with her burly, bloke-ish husband. A night of forbidden passion ensues and, you guessed it, a bun starts baking in her previously barren oven, which only makes her younger lover more feverish and volatile.

There are few surprises in Coffin Rock; one of the rare few being that it’s a solid piece of filmmaking despite the laughable title. As a tensioner, though, it follows tried and tested methods to produce a tight end-result that may not resonate as a classic, but definitely succeeds as an edgy suspense-horror with strong performances.

WAKE IN FRIGHT dir.Ted Kotcheff

Nitpickers will note Wake in Fright was originally produced in 1971 and a Canadian directed it. True. But this much-maligned classic has been suffering in cinematic purgatory – almost lost forever – until its original editor restored one last surviving print and re-released it last year to the delight of cineastes the world over. And let’s not forget the flyblown outback, the nasal Aussie growl and the dubious mateship that sets the film squarely in Australia, Canadian director or not.

Watching Wake in Fright at the cinema was one of the highlights of last year – it’s that special. A terribly English schoolteacher (Gary Bond) makes his way from his rural post to Sydney, only to be waylaid in a ‘friendly’ little town known as ‘The Yabba’ where everything seems OK just as long as you continue drinking beer with the locals. After losing all his cash in a game of two-up, the traveller’s experiences degenerate into a nightmarish long weekend where he meets up with all manner of malevolent ‘characters’, including an alcoholic doctor played beautifully by Donald Pleasance with a perfect Australian twang.

Very few films have matched the mood of Wake in Fright, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre coming the closest in terms of dirt, dust, sweat and sheer dreariness. Get out the duelling banjos – you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into Deliverance.

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