Once upon a time, in the summer of 2017, I wrote a story for Metro called ‘The Great Southern Creature Feature’ that used the release of the independent monster movie, Red Billabong, as a launching pad to talk about Australia’s proclivity for eco-horror.
While I was contractually unable to share this story with you until now, I’d like to point out that this particular edition of Metro is still available for purchase online, where you can enjoy this story (and many more) in all its colourful, printed glory.
Otherwise, here’s a plain text version for your reading pleasure…
THE GREAT SOUTHERN CREATURE FEATURE:
LUKE SPARKE’S RED BILLABONG
Particularly because of its unique fauna, flora, topography and history, Australia provides fertile ground for makers of horror films. In the case of Red Billabong, an outback setting and Aboriginal mythology come together to culminate in a quintessentially Australian example of the ‘natural horror’ subgenre. Emma Westwood speaks to director Luke Sparke about his influences and the origins of his feature debut.
The concept of nature attacking humans is nothing new when it comes to horror films, but it does have the potential to be at its most potent in an Australian context. Since the emergence of an Australian horror cinema in the 1970s, filmmakers have been latching onto the danger posed by our fauna, flora and mythology, along with the storytelling and subtextual possibilities arising from such threats.
From the ethereal through to the corporeal, the unique qualities of Australian wildlife facilitate horror of infinite range and intrigue. The landscape is simultaneously overwhelming and suffocating, as depicted in Razorback (Russell Mulcahy, 1984). There are unique creatures found nowhere else on Earth – see: Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1978) and Howling III: The Marsupials (Philippe Mora, 1987). The mysticism of the outback evokes otherworldliness, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). Remnants of prehistoric life exist even today, a fact capitalised on by Dark Age (Arch Nicholson, 1987), Rogue (Greg McLean, 2007) and Black Water (David Nerlich & Andrew Traucki, 2007). And the country boasts some of the most treacherous, shark-infested waters known to mankind – giving birth to films like The Reef (Andrew Traucki, 2010). All of these examples emphasise the severity of the Australian environment and how, if we fail to respect our natural surrounds, or poke our noses in where we’re not wanted, things will go horribly awry.
One of the newest entries in this canon is Red Billabong (2016) by first-time Australian writer/director Luke Sparke. His film begins with the fissure between brothers Nick (Dan Ewing) and Tristan (Tim Pocock), who have come together reluctantly to determine the fate of their deceased grandfather’s outback estate. In the process, they uncover links to the local Indigenous community along with goings-on that suggest their grandfather was closely involved in an ancient legend, the whats, wheres and whys of which the siblings and their cohort unravel bit by bit. Red Billabong is a dense mashup of all the elements that the Australian natural horror subgenre brings to the table as well as a number of other horror tropes, such as the outsider / prodigal son disturbing the status quo, the ‘Final Girl’ (the character of Anya played by Sophie Don is even openly referred to as the ‘Final Girl’ in the film’s dialogue) and a monster. You don’t have to dig deep to uncover them and, at times, the film borrows from other genres, too – teen, comedy, action, adventure … they’re all there.
Sparke makes no bones about using Hollywood as his major point of reference. His father, Ian, is responsible for building one of the biggest costume/prop houses for Australian cinema, specialising in military history, which means Sparke grew up with a hands-on watch-and-learn ‘apprenticeship’ in filmmaking. This has seen him spend long hours on big-budget American productions like 2010 miniseries The Pacific, which was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg.
Sparke confesses to being a child of the Star Wars generation; when asked about who inspired him to make Red Billabong, he repeatedly refers to the American masters of the multiplex – Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, JJ Abrams et al. – rather than horror filmmakers necessarily. When pressed for Australian influences, Sparke admits to enjoying the so-called Ozploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s – a label that can be applied to the titles mentioned earlier in this article – but more decisively names two non-horror examples: Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981) and Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986), nodding to the latter with a ‘that’s not a knife’ reference in Red Billabong’s dialogue. Interestingly, he hesitates when adding McLean’s ‘monster in the waterways’ thriller-chiller Rogue to his list of influences, even though it would seem an obvious one. ‘I tried to make sure our film was different [from Rogue],’ he says.
I really like Greg’s work, but I didn’t want to make it a group of people who get picked off one by one. I wanted to take mine in a different direction where, through necessity with our budget, we had to focus on the characters to begin with, get them in there, then take a left turn when you think it’s going to go right. All these weird things happen to the girls, and the Aboriginals come in, and mercenaries, and it becomes a whole other movie.
Sparke admits to also having had people compare his debut with Mulcahy’s wild-boar flick Razorback. In the book Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, Lee Gambin describes Razorback’s plotline as ‘an outsider comes into a new world and, from the onset, things in the natural environment change […] something evil, an ancient monster, wakes up’. This summation could very well be referring to Red Billabong. But Gambin then notes that, unlike other examples of the subgenre,
[s]omething that doesn’t pop up [in Razorback] is a wise elder of an Aboriginal tribe explaining the ‘reasoning’ behind the monstrous animal attacks, or an elder offering some kind of ancient folkloric legend in reference to wild pigs and the like.
This is where Red Billabong diverges from Mulcahy’s film. In embodying a mashup of tropes, Red Billabong uses the common diegetic device of the ‘noble savage’, pinpointed by Gambin, to impart information about the monster of the film (teasingly referred to in Red Billabong’s promotional materials as ‘What is it?’), which looms threateningly in the background until it is revealed in the concluding scenes.
‘I had my own ideas of what I wanted to do,’ Sparke explains.
Some people in LA came back to me and said, ‘We’ll give you some money if you kill off the Aboriginal and make the white lead the hero.’ I said, ‘No way – this is an Aboriginal legend, I want him to be a superhero at the end.’ It was very interesting backing myself in situations like that when I could have very easily said, ‘Sure, whatever you want,’ to get the money. There’s been no studio over my head so it’s 100 per cent me.
Sparke readily concedes he was never going to ‘tick the right boxes’ for Australian government funding: he had not studied at film school, nor was he making an indie drama. He wanted to produce genre films, which are rarely looked on favourably by our funding bodies – an all-too-familiar gripe voiced by many local filmmakers over the years. Instead, Sparke used his own entrepreneurial skills to bring Red Billabong to life.
Our investors were literally just hardworking Aussies – there were no millionaires. Some people even put their houses on the line for me. It was just people who were passionate about making a good movie. They could see that the international sales alone [through American international sales agency Arclight] would get them their money back, and they just wanted to help change Aussie cinema. They want to go to the movies and watch their own countrymen in an exciting movie rather than a depressing one.
Sparke’s big break came a couple of years ago, when he was commissioned to make a two-part World War I docudrama for the History Channel, Yesterday Is History. ‘I had this script [for Red Billabong] ready to go in the background,’ he recounts,
so I was able to bring out some investors to the doco shoot and say, ‘Here I am, shooting with a huge camp and lots of tanks and trucks,’ and they could actually go, ‘Oh wow, you know what you’re doing – here’s a cheque, go and make Red Billabong.’ I was able to use one [project] to get to the other.
He explains that he ‘started writing Red Billabong back in 2007’.
I had this script started because I knew I had to get one out of the gates – to show people my skills as a director and writer, and that I could do it on a budget. But a lot of first-time filmmakers go down that same Australian route of making a dark drama – a ‘kitchen-sink drama’ – because of the budget limitations, and then they can go on and get a bit of prestige at film festivals and whatever.
I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make sure people knew that I wanted to make exciting popcorn action movies. So I looked back into Australian mythology at what had not been done that could be interesting. This particular myth and creature kept coming up and I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this yet? This is a pretty cool creature.’
Despite being created by someone so squarely focused on American cinematic traditions, Red Billabong is quintessentially Australian, not just in context and lineage, but also in symbolism. The film wears its Australianness on its sleeve – quite literally, with older brother Nick sporting a Southern Cross tattoo on his forearm. The soundtrack of Australian pop-rock classics includes Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘The Horses’, The Angels’ ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again’ and GANGgajang’s ‘Sounds of Then’, the last of which is played over the opening credits and features the immortal line ‘This is Australia’. The characters comment on the prevalence of flies (‘they’re par for the course’), magpies warble, cockatoos and kookaburras create their distinctive ruckus, and a cricket bat is used as a weapon. The title even includes the word ‘billabong’.
Film scholar Michael Fuchs observes that the Australian natural horror film is so effective because it plays to our most basic ‘fight or flight’ impulses, our drive to survive not just as individuals but as a species:
The great white sharks and saltwater crocodiles featured in Rogue, Black Water and The Reef, which most definitely fit the bill as characteristically Australian animals, embody primal fears. As apex predators who have dominated their respective ecosystems for nearly five million years, these animals are generally not simply considered animals; they are ‘monsters’.
But, despite its genre-mashing and cinematic-referencing, Red Billabong is, at its core, a monster movie – a creature feature. All the jealousies, family disputes, heartbreak, guilt and betrayal across its 113 minutes build to that climactic moment when the monster appears in all its glory. Drawing from legend rather than real-world sharks, crocodiles or wild boar has given Sparke creative licence: viewers have no preconceived notions of how this mythical creature should act, or even how it looks, so he gets to play god with his monstrous cinematic invention. With the weight of his film riding on this monster, Sparke preps the audience for something big – yet a ‘less is more’ approach would have given the monster, created on such a small budget, greater grunt. Then again, this sort of restraint hardly figures in Sparke’s blockbuster world, where spectacle and excess are the norm, especially among younger movie fans.
When all is said and done, Sparke has achieved the objective he had set out to: he has enthusiastically made his debut count, capitalising on all of his practical learning and cinematic knowledge to create what could be called ‘a small epic’ – a grand film on a tiny budget. And a fun Australian natural horror movie at that.
Emma Westwood is a writer from Melbourne, and broadcaster on Triple R FM’s Plato’s Cave film criticism program, with an interest in horror and extreme cinema. She is the author of Monster Movies (Pocket Essentials, UK, 2008) and is currently working on a monograph on David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) for the Devil’s Advocates series, also published in the UK.
We could argue that the Australian natural horror subgenre surfaced with Wake in Fright (1971), a film incidentally directed by a Canadian (Ted Kotcheff), based on a book by Australian journalist Kenneth Cook. While there is no monster/creature explicitly featured in Wake in Fright, the unforgiving environs in and around the town of Bundanyabba shroud the film like a malevolent fog – overwhelming and suffocating, acting as a major contributor to the unspeakably beastly behaviour of the townsfolk. A night-time roo-hunting scene acts as chilling evidence of men gone wild, with only the laws of nature to abide by.
Lee Gambin, Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, Midnight Marquee Press, Baltimore, 2012, p. 38
Michael Fuchs, “They Are a Fact of Life out Here”: The Ecocritical Subtexts of Three Early-twenty-first-century Aussie Animal Horror Movies’, in Katarina Gregersdotter, Johan Höglund & Nicklas Hållén (eds), Animal Horror Cinema: Genre, History and Criticism, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2015, p. 39