Maybe it’s the abundance of deadly animals. Maybe it’s the isolation. Maybe it’s the convict past. Or maybe Australians just really like making sick, twisted films. Whatever the answer may be, there is a long and storied history of horror films from Australia. From Tarantino’s beloved Ozploitation flicks, to the Babadook’s fame today, the horror film genre is a significant part of Australia’s filmic history.
Australian horror films are unmistakable. Accents so thick that many of Australia’s 70’s exports were dubbed with American voices. Kangaroos, sharks, crocodiles feature abundantly, as instruments of fear or as a reminder of Australia’s close and often difficult relationship with nature. Films like Waking in Fright look at Australian culture and in an isolated corner of the country find a dark and sinister sect of society.
And although horror films played a major part in Australia’s filmmaking renaissance in the 1970’s, many only found minor success as cult films. This trend continues to this day, with the Babadook making waves internationally, but without finding an audience in Australia. It’s unfortunate, and an indicative of a widespread lack of appreciation for locally produced content. Hopefully with the production values and budgets of Australian films increasing, more will find success at home.
Whatever the state of the Australian film industry, if you want to explore the world of Australian horror films, which you do because they are some of the best in the world, this list is the place to start.
10. The Cars that Ate Paris (1974)
The title of this 1974 cult classic is certainly unusual. And going into the film without any knowledge of it, you could be forgiven for being surprised by the lack of Eiffel Towers and croissants. Because even the strangeness of that title can’t quite match the strangeness of the film.
The second feature film from acclaimed Australian director/writer Peter Weir (who would go on to create mainstream Hollywood hits with The Truman Show, Witness and Master and Commander), The Cars that Ate Paris is set in the rural town of Paris where the scrap from car crashes intentionally caused by the townspeople is used to fuel their economy. The film follows the naïve and innocent Arthur who finds himself trapped amongst the weird and twisted residents of Paris after falling victim to one of Paris’ deadly car traps. Although it contains next to no jump scares, nor gore or squealing violin scores, it is nevertheless consistently unnerving.
Like the fictional town of Burbank in The Truman Show, the town of Paris is familiar, yet just a little off kilter. How off kilter, well, you never really find out until the film’s climactic scene. That scene neatly captures the tone of the film; slightly macabre, a bit funny and very sinister. You never quite know whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, or to turn on the lights and check under the bed. Or should I say to check the car, to ensure it hasn’t turned into an automotive porcupine. The spiked beetle that proved the film’s most memorable image was a key part of the film’s promotion, it was driven through Cannes streets to promote the films screening.
It may not be wet the bed scary and yes, its 70’s special effects are dated; it’s slow and undoubtedly a little cheesy, but for 250,000 dollars, Peter Weir created a classic slice of 70s Australian cinema that sticks in the mind and leaves you just a little bewildered.
9. Patrick (1978)
Patrick is just “160 pounds of limp meat hanging off a comatose brain”. Or so his nursing staff believe. But when Kathy Jacquard (Susan Penhaligon) is made his private nurse, he falls in love. Unable to move, Patrick uses telekinesis to manipulate things with his mind, attempting to bring himself and Kathy together.
At its heart, Patrick is a love story. But just like Patrick himself, it’s a very sick one. Patrick is at all times both repulsive and sympathetic, unable to understand his feelings, turning them into increasingly angry and violent attacks. As he grapples with his affections, Kathy also searches for the truth, and to convince others of Patrick’s consciousness.
Rather like being buried alive, the thought of being a mind trapped inside a body that can’t be controlled is terrifying. To work around this, Patrick develops a kind of sixth sense. And most of the tension in the movie revolves around knowing just how much damage he can do at any given time. However, refreshingly, Kathy never seems all that perturbed by the chaos around her. She is no screaming blonde who runs to the nearest man. She just confidently goes about, trying to get to the truth.
It’s another Ozploitation flick, but despite the somewhat goofy premise, it’s extremely well made, with eerie institutional set design, all round energetic acting and excellent writing from Long Weekend scribe Everett de Roche. It is certainly essential Aussie horror viewing, and refreshingly universal in themes, with no beer or kangaroos in sight.
8. Long Weekend (1978)
It’s not a giant shark, it’s not a crocodile, it’s not a maniacal outback murderer. No, it’s a dugong which is the scariest part of this 1978 ozploitatiuon flick. When bickering couple Marcia and Peter decide to spend their, yes, you guessed it, long weekend on an isolated beach, they unwittingly provoke natures wrath.
Though a critical and commercial flop in Australia, Long Weekend is nonetheless a grade-A piece of pulp cinema. An excellent premise, where mother-nature possess the ability to fight back against perceived threats. Excellent acting from both legendary Australian actor John Hargreaves and Briony Behets and assured direction from Colin Eggelston, whose greatest achievement is making so much of the fear implied.
There is no mass coordinated attack of wild animals, instead much of the “horror” is achieved merely through its unfamiliar atmosphere. So convincing is the mood that even a dead dugong and a possum are more likely to provoke shrieks of terror than shrieks of laughter. It’s no mean feat, especially considering how dated the film could have become. But by steering clear of schlocky special effects and giant monsters, and relying on convincing acting and smart staging instead, Long Weekend is somewhat surprisingly watchable for a cheap, late seventies Australian film.
Despite its modest ambitions, failure at the box office and relative obscurity, Long Weekend is a film that thoroughly deserves a watch. An important environmental message, a dugong and an angry mother nature combine to make a memorable part of Australian cinema.
7. Wolf Creek (2005)
From the opening line of “travelin’ with two Sheila’s are ya mate!?” to the stunning golden landscape, this is a film that is as Australian as it is terrifying. Borrowing from the backpacker murders of serial killer Ivan Milat, and the killing of British tourist Peter Falconio, director and writer Greg Mclean tells the “true story” of a trio of young backpackers journeying through outback Australia. When their car breaks down outside Wolf Creek, a friendly local seems like a knight in shining armour. In fact they’ve fallen into the hands of the murderous Mick Taylor.
In many ways, actor John Jarrett’s portrayal of Taylor is the dark side to the cheerful Australian bushman immortalized by Paul Hogan in the Crocodile Dundee films. Taylor is crude, crass and cruel, taking delight in torturing the hapless tourists. As a villain, he is up there in the horror movie hall of fame, somewhere between Jaws and Hannibal Lecter.
The eerie score and casual beauty of the Australian landscape belie the film’s tiny budget and limited resources. Like many classic Australian films, the desert is almost deserving of a credit, its presence looming over the film, the silent accomplice to Jarratt’s serial killer. Whilst not the most intellectually sophisticated of films, Wolf Creek asks some serious questions about Australian culture while scaring the wits out of you.
It may have gotten a zero from Roger Ebert, and it’s less “slip another shrimp on the Barbie” and more “head on a stick”, but Wolf Creek is still a must see take on the serial killer.
6. Lake Mungo (2008)
Although a mockumentary, this is certainly no Spinal Tap (however it does have some excellent music). Effectively a ghost story told in the style of a 60 minutes segment, Lake Mungo is a surprising film about things that go bump in the night.
The heart of the story is the Palmer family, whose lives are torn apart when their daughter Alice drowns on a family picnic. As they heartbreakingly come to terms with their loss, it becomes clear that all is not quite as it seems. Supernatural encounters ensue as Alice’s past is exhumed to give a grieving family closure.
It’s a risky proposition, an entire film more or less made up of actors delivering lines to camera, but it ends up working in the movie’s favor. The story is what propels the film along and it’s not until you look back on the film that you realize that nothing really happens, that all the film’s drama comes from watching an ordinary family cope with loss.
Although there are jump scares, they are few and far between, but nevertheless, rather like a torch lit horror story on school camp, you can’t help but want to curl up and shut your eyes. Much of this atmosphere is due to the work of Dai Paterson and Fernando Corona who create a sly, meandering score that snakes under the film and perfectly matches the mood on screen.
A compelling ghost story that manages to be so much more, Lake Mungo is an emotional ride that needs to be seen from top to bottom to be truly appreciated. Not content to be another cookie cutter Paranormal Activity rip off, it belongs comfortably in the ranks of modern Australian horror classics.