Australia forever knocks it out of the park with its films, but before recent years, this century has made us famous for excelling in one particular genre – horror. Strange that our humble snag n’ footy loving little country could become associated with movies designed to make their audiences cower in terror, but perhaps our own filmmakers have a bit of a sadistic streak, or just know that people love to be rattled from the comfort of a cinema seat.
Like Japanese horror, they often do well internationally, earning back a box office hundreds of times more than their miniscule budgets; perhaps it’s because fear is something that translates into every language. Plenty of Aussies have rocked Hollywood with their ideas – the star players being the boys behind the über-successful Saw franchise, and the Spierig brothers, who manned the Ethan Hawke-starring Daybreakers and Predestination. But here’s a handful that were grown right here in our own backyard, and show a bit of Oz culture amidst the scares.
Wolf Creek (2005)
Two British tourists and their Australian friend are road tripping across Australia from Broome to Cairns, and stop for the night in the Wolf Creek National Park, famous for its meteorite crater. Big mistake – it also happens to be home to Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), a bushman who appears charming and helpful, but has extremely sadistic and torturous intentions for the trio.
The film that did for backpacking what Jaws did for the beach and The Blair Witch Project did for camping, Greg McLean’s debut is so terrifying purely because of how authentic it feels; that monsters like Mick Taylor could genuinely be lurking in the desolate patches of rural Australia. He’s become a true horror icon alongside the likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees, but what makes Mick distinctive is that he could be mistaken for any Aussie bloke living in our own neighbourhoods; he’s a larrikin, true blue through and through, and surprisingly likeable – all the more chilling as he lures tourists into a false sense of security before he begins carving them up.
Proving himself enduring, the outback serial killer became the focus of a sequel and Stan miniseries, with a third film on the way.
Lake Mungo (2008)
After sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowns in a dam on a vacation, her grief-stricken family begin to notice strange occurrences happening in their house, and that a figure with Alice’s likeness is appearing in photographs and video footage. Convinced Alice is either possibly still alive or haunting them, the Palmers set up cameras to capture the mysterious going-ons overnight and uncover the bizarre circumstances surrounding her death.
Proving that ideas realised with next-to-no budget can be far scarier than multi-million dollar studio releases, Lake Mungo is a simple but deeply unsettling experience. Filmed in investigative documentary style, director Joel Anderson avoids jump scares (mostly) and instead creates a mood of pure dread as sinister figures are chillingly revealed to be lurking in everything the Palmers seem to capture. It’s an engaging mystery, and what the family discovers after a trail of clues leads them to the titular Lake Mungo will require you to leave all the lights on afterwards. Like Paranormal Activity but much smarter and much, much scarier.
The Babadook (2014)
Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is trapped in an unending depression spiral as she struggles to raise her nightmarishly erratic six-year-old son, who is plagued by insomnia and imaginary monsters. Things get worse when she reads him a bedtime story about Mister Babadook, a tall, shadowy and clawed creature. Amelia soon finds out that he’s quite real, and about to torment them both.
It’s hard to determine who is the bigger monster for Amelia in Jennifer Kent’s stunning debut – the Babadook himself, a genuinely frightening spectre, or her rage-inducing son Samuel (played perfectly by young Noah Wiseman); truly one of the most irritating characters in movie history. Then it could be Amelia’s grief itself, as the film doubles the affliction of the monster as a genius metaphor for depression and the psychological breakdown and damage it puts its affected through. Besides being thoroughly chilling, Kent’s film is far more thought-provoking than your average horror flick; it works on many different levels and contains ideas ripe for deep discussion. The Babadook himself received a recent resurge in popularity and now lives on, bizarrely enough, as a gay icon after mistakenly being categorised as an LGBT film on Netflix.
The Loved Ones (2009)
After politely declining her offer to take her to the high school dance, Brent (Xavier Samuel) is attacked and abducted by his classmate Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy). He awakens imprisoned at her house, which her dad has turned into a personal prom for her, and is forced to endure the extremely gory consequences of rejecting the queen of her own demented dance.
Turning the stomach-churning torture porn subgenre on its ear, Sean Byrne (another debuting filmmaker) manages to make hyper-violent horror feel justified by backing it with insane but three-dimensional characters and a wicked streak of pitch-black comedy. With a blood-splattered smattering of frontal lobotomies performed with power drills and love hearts carved into human flesh with a fork alongside painfully cheesy lines and music by Kasey Chambers, The Loved Ones has its tongue firmly in cheek, as outrageously funny as it is wince-inducing. Our own school dances may have some embarrassing memories, but at least they weren’t quite as painful as this – or the copycat real life murder it inspired.
Interestingly, Wolf Creek’s John Jarratt turned down the role of Lola’s deranged father, fearing he might fall victim to typecasting.
Images courtesy of Roadshow Films, Mungo Productions, Umbrella Entertainment