Aussie Horror Films: Why Do The Critics Keep Getting It Wrong?
The Australian film industry has had a history of overachieving with genre film, but our most distinctive stories are buried behind mainstream tastes - and the filmmakers are suffering, reports JOSEPH EARP.
"I think people and audiences, potential audiences, have to be warned about it." – David Stratton on Wolf Creek
It was mid-2013, and Jennifer Kent was in a cramped, creaky house in South Australia, trying to make a movie. An expansion of a dark, emotionally draining short named Monster, which she had directed some time prior, the new production’s funds had been cobbled together ad hoc, and while some of the cash came from Kickstarter, a sizeable hunk had been sourced through an Australian arts funding grant. But even despite the varied nature of her backers, the money at Kent’s disposal was laughably slim: most of the $2 million she had set aside for the shoot was tied up in sets and production design, not to mention the complicated practical effects required by her stark, deliberately and artfully underwritten script.
And there were other issues too, problems more ethical than financial. The film’s dark, melancholia-soaked narrative – a story of loss and the supernatural centred around a grieving mother named Amelia and her young son Samuel – required Kent to rely heavily on the acting chops of a six-year-old, a South Australian first-time actor named Noah Wiseman. Being no tyrant, Kent had to somehow wrangle the best possible performance from her juvenile lead without ever exposing him to the nastier elements of the plot, and constantly juggling his innocence with the heightened, snarling twists of the story became time-consuming.
“We needed double the time we had,” Kent said later in an interview with Den Of Geek. The days were long, the heat was rising, and an ungodly series of anxieties – many of them self-inflicted by Kent – twisted and creaked behind the rookie director as she moved from set-up to set-up.
But before too long, the crushingly brief production period was over, and Kent could delve deep into editing, in the process assembling a monster movie that wasn’t even really a monster movie; a horror film that used its central conceit to explore obsession and loss. And then, finally, it was done. In May 2014, Kent’s labour of love – a little movie named The Babadook [above] – was unleashed to cinemas around Australia. It was met with near-deafening commercial and critical silence.
13 was the unlucky number of cinemas The Babadook screened at during its hometown run, and the relatively few notices it received came from outside the mainstream critical community; from horror bloggers and long-standing defenders of genre cinema. For the most part, the broader critical consensus was one defined by suspicion, and “visually distinctive” was about the highest praise that could be tugged out of Australia’s leading cinema reviewers.
Just as pressingly, the film’s advertising budget was practically non-existent, and the cinemas it played in were those frequented by the art house crowd rather than the broader audience The Babadook desperately needed to attract in order to properly recoup its budget. By the time it was done screening in its home country, Kent’s debut had made a mere $258,000 – a fraction of its paltry price tag.
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By all accounts, it seemed as though The Babadook was going to go the way of so many other films made in this country, gurgling out of sight to join under-heralded classics like Ted Kotcheff’s booze-soaked Wake In Fright, a masterpiece lost for decades, or Terry Bourke’s hard-to-find alt-classic, Inn Of The Damned. Like those discarded art pieces, The Babadook appeared too dark for mainstream critical institutions, too hard to find for audiences not properly prompted where to look, and too underfunded for significant ad campaigns.
But like the fake-out deaths that characterise the final reel of slasher flicks, The Babadook’s demise was merely a set-up for one of the most striking resurrections in contemporary Australian cinema. Slowly but surely, as it crept into cinemas internationally, the film began to build up commercial speed. In France, it opened at number 11 at the box office. In England, helped along in no small part by critics like Mark Kermode – a long-time champion of genre film – the movie made more in its first weekend than in its entire Australian run.
And then finally, prodded along by the praise of The Exorcist director William Friedkin, The Babadook lugged itself across America, raking up just shy of a million US dollars and winning near-universal acclaim. By the time it left screens, this little Australian horror film that had seemed ready to disappear from the cultural map had returned its budget and then some, racking up US$7 million in revenue.
It was then – and only then – that Australia’s mainstream circle of critics began to champion a film that no longer needed their help, perhaps suitably ashamed that they had ignored a classic lurking right under their noses. And that too was when Australian audiences returned to the movie so many had missed, alerted to a homegrown classic by the reception pouring in overseas.
“The Babadook was championed internationally for being one of the best films of 2014,” says film writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. “But critics here on the whole were only comfortable even acknowledging its existence once they were told it was OK to call a horror film a masterpiece.”
The question, then, is why? Why did Australians need the approval of the outside world before they felt ready to embrace something of their own? Is it, as many have suggested, a case of the cultural cringe that has so dominated Australian attitudes towards their own art? Or is it something deeper – something emblematic of the sniffy attitude consistently displayed by mainstream Australian critics, not to mention their habit of ignoring anything that doesn’t contain the slow, considered beats of a family drama like The Daughter or that prosaic, long-obsessed over Australian mainstay, Lantana?
In any case, The Babadook laid bare a glaring problem that has long haunted Antipodean cinema, and shone light on a festering wound that manifests itself as a critical and symptomatic fear of anything outside the established norm. Kent’s film proved that Australian genre cinema, despite boasting a varied and rich history – not to mention a real and observable earning power – was still being ignored by the critical establishment, as writers and broadcasters shuffled into a corner to avoid the sight of a success they couldn’t stand to accept.
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"Welcome to Australia, cocksucker!" – Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek 2
John Jarrett as Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek 2
The list of horror cinema’s masters is so often repeated that it has almost been tattooed upon the tongue. John Carpenter. Dario Argento. David Cronenberg. Guillermo del Toro. These are names that consistently crop up when genre film fans are prodded to list their heroes, and the blood-splattered and visually compelling filmographies of these acclaimed directors have been picked over endlessly by audiences and critics alike.
But there is one name that has never earned the distinction that it deserves. Everett De Roche, an American-born, Australian citizen and writer, carved out one of horror’s most distinctive bodies of work in the ’70s and ’80s, producing slimy, smeared classic after classic in the process. Across 16 vicious and inventive screenplays, he became one of this country’s most creatively compelling cinematic heroes – even as he went almost consistently ignored in his time.
“Almost everything that Everett De Roche wrote is one of my favourite films,” Quentin Tarantino [below] once said, dropping a platitude that Australian critics have long attempted to discredit and ignore. Indeed, the journalist Mark Juddery even went so far as using the quote as a way to smear Tarantino’s taste in De Roche’s obituary (of all places), in the process aiming to downplay the horror screenwriter’s varied achievements even as it proclaimed to champion them.
“Tarantino has an eclectic love of film, but he is famously inspired by ‘trash’ cinema,” ran a particularly sniffy line in Juddery’s Sydney Morning Herald overview of De Roche’s life and work, published after the screenwriter succumbed to cancer in 2014.
Not that De Roche would necessarily have been surprised by the tone of the piece. Since penning his first film – a Hitchcockian psychodrama named Patrick that followed the telekinetic exploits of a young man in a coma – De Roche’s career was characterised by the stony reception from his peers. Even when his movies became commercially successful, they were hits despite critics, not because of them, and the accolades he won largely came from overseas festivals and awards bodies.
No matter that his scripts imbued conventional thriller tropes with a distinctly Antipodean feel, as in the brilliant Road Games, or that he displayed a distinct knack for making the humdrum and recognisable truly horrific, as in the Citizen Kane of killer pig films, 1984’s Razorback. Time and again, in the face of De Roche’s gauche output, the cinematic establishment turned a decidedly blind eye.
It was a critical dearth of which De Roche was all too aware. In a career-spanning interview with Spectacular Optical, he appeared bemused yet ever so slightly concerned by the delayed acceptance of his movies, in particular the resurgence of his surrealist ‘nature gone wrong’ masterpiece Long Weekend.
“It’s ironic that it took a Quentin Tarantino, 30 years later, to draw the world’s attention to what he describes as ‘this little Aussie masterpiece’,” De Roche said. “It wasn’t even until the DVD was released just a few years ago that I realised – via the DVD extras – that the movie had done exceedingly well in Europe.”
De Roche wasn’t alone in being ignored by Australian critics, either. The reaction of his adopted country’s critical establishment was emblematic of a broader trend of genre film refusal maintained by writers and broadcasters during the so-called Ozploitation boom of the ’70s and ’80s. As is lovingly charted in Mark Hartley’s brilliant 2008 documentary, Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation, even as a run of low-budget, endlessly inventive sex and horror films began to find their audiences via drive-in cinemas around the country, critics aimed to downplay the success of such exploits, considering them a national embarrassment.
“[In the] 1970s … the huge popularity of things like [sex comedy] Alvin Purple and the Barry McKenzie films terrified politicians and funding bodies that this might actually be what white Australians are like,” says Heller-Nicholas. “More serious dramas like My Brilliant Career and Gallipoli spoke of a much more ‘sophisticated’ culture than these exploitation drive-in blockbusters, and [that] vision of Australia has consistently been one our government has been keen to keep pushing out into international markets over the more carnivalesque, fun stuff.”
Ultimately, such conflicting attitudes were born from the complicated rifts in the country’s emerging identity. Since the ’60s, a long litany of academics and self-appointed ‘experts’ have measured Australian art against the highbrow pleasures of Europe’s canonised creatives, while the work of homegrown filmmakers trying to find a more authentic national style has been ignored.
To that end, the questions being asked by creatives and critics alike in the ’70s were the same as those being asked now: what does a truly Australian film look like? What is an Australian story? And what is the dominant Australian style? Throughout, a chasm has become apparent between the answers provided by the majority of establishment critics and those proffered by audiences and filmmakers.
While genre-concerned creatives like De Roche use horror to hone a truly Australian voice, critics have been searching endlessly for movies that reflect a different vision of their country, one they can use to dismiss a largely self-created myth that Australia is without culture. And as the years have dragged on, these two warring opinions concerning our country’s national artistic identity have grown only more and more opposed, as nothing less than two versions of Australia have repeatedly come to collide.
The near-overriding majority of Australia’s now recognised and acclaimed cinematic names had their beginnings in genre film. Peter Weir, Richard Lowenstein, Phillip Noyce and Rolf de Heer – a handful of this country’s most prestigious living directors – all had their start making sci-fi and horror, with Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris in particular remaining a darkly comedic genre masterpiece.
But in almost every case, these filmmakers only managed to find critical acceptance after discarding most of their stranger inclinations. Both Weir and Noyce, the directors of classics such as Gallipoli and Rabbit-Proof Fence respectively, have now almost completely abandoned their early reputations as peddlers of scuzzy, smudged delights. And while De Heer still has a renegade, smirking attitude towards Australian values, he has never made another film as visibly indebted to horror as Bad Boy Bubby.
And that has long remained the impasse faced by filmmakers: if you want to achieve any real acclaim in this country, you have to avoid paying tribute to any style considered lowbrow. The movies that have been championed by Australian critics are those that have stuck largely to the formula of ‘tortured rural family dealing with dark underlying secrets’, with these slow-as-treacle familial epics displaying what could generously be described as a prosaic approach to tone, and bluntly described as a comatose one.
Filmmakers who stick closely to this established trend are consistently rewarded, and cookie-cutter exercises in banality and bloodless conflict – even interminable dreck like Fred Schepsi’s The Eye Of The Storm, winner of Best Australian Feature at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival – are blessed in a shower of poster-ready quotes. Flash-in-the-pan exercises in testing the patience of cinemagoers have earned the nods of the critical establishment, while anything more risky than the likes of, say, Animal Kingdom, earns widespread condemnation.
The case in point remains Romper Stomper [above], a 1992 lo-fi serve of lunacy that drew as much on zombie classics like Night Of The Living Dead as it did from kitchen-sink dramas, and a work that was savaged by that disparager of Australian horror cinema, David Stratton. Indeed, Stratton’s opinions have long erred on the side of the stiff and soulless – in his virtual retirement from television screens, Stratton has engaged in such activities as programming stiff-upper-lip statements like Brief Encounter for cruises favoured by octogenarians, a move that speaks volumes about the films he seeks out.
In this way, Stratton’s refusal to engage with anything provocative is emblematic of broader critical views. It was no matter to Stratton and his peers that Romper Stomper launched the career of its star Russell Crowe, or that its brutal and bombastic central chase set piece has become the stuff of Australian cinematic legend – Stratton’s long-established bias against genre cinema saw him flat out refusing to rate it, a move that he has echoed a number of times since (but only when presented with horror films or thrillers).
Indeed, no measure of forgiveness is ever afforded to filmmakers who move outside the boundaries of what critics will accept. David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom [below] was a genre film on the surface level alone, so it was accepted by Australia’s self-appointed doyens of good taste, but when his second feature The Rover drew more clearly on Ozploitation history, he was abandoned by those who had once championed him.
And so the attitude maintained by Australia’s critical establishment remains unchanged, and a curious creative ultimatum has holds fast. The bottom line is this: adopt the standard Aussie film tropes and you will be acclaimed by critics. Work against the grain – no matter how successful you become in doing so – and you will work in darkness.
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"Wolf Creek 2 [can] be considered one of the most unrelentingly political films produced in this country in recent years." – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, ‘Horrors Of History: On The Politics Of Wolf Creek 2’
In February 2014, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton took to their long-running and acclaimed television show, At The Movies, to discuss Lone Survivor. Of course, this wasn’t unusual in itself: Lone Survivor had just hit cinemas, and it would ultimately be more surprising if they had chosen to avoid it.
But the move was hard to follow not because of the film they were discussing, but because of the film they had chosen to ignore. Off-camera, the pair had elected to sidestep Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek 2 entirely, despite the fact the film was a sequel to one of the highest-grossing Australian productions in recent memory and a political satire that had reached the number one spot at the national box office.
According to Stratton and Pomeranz’s complicated moral code, the jingoistic and relentlessly brutal Lone Survivor was fine to review, whereas Wolf Creek 2, a local production that would have benefited from critical attention good or bad, was too ‘ugly’ to warrant a discussion.
That spurious, sniffy reaction spoke volumes. That Stratton and Pomeranz were unwilling to even engage with Wolf Creek 2’s satirical bent – that they chose to judge the film without any understanding that it might be deeper than its surface layer of blood and gore – didn’t just reflect a vein of cultural superiority. Problematically, it revealed much more than that, making clear a stubborn and deliberate desire to misinterpret Australian genre films.
“I really champion Wolf Creek 2,” says Heller-Nicholas, a committed defender of the film. “I strongly believe it was a very clear attack on the kind of pervasive white Australian racism that has resulted in the real-life horror show unfolding even still in Nauru and Manus Island.”
Of course, the pain of the cold shoulder was not unusual to McLean – the first Wolf Creek film received the same widespread critical disapproval, and, as is now to be expected, only really achieved true overseas success after it had first been championed by American critics and mouthpieces such as Tarantino.
After all, silence remains the most powerful tool the Australian critical establishment has at its disposal: if it wants to drown a film, it can merely ignore it, and many critics have displayed more of an interest in American and British indie strugglers than films made in their own country.
Indifference has its own power, and an institutional turning of collective backs is one that a range of Australian genre filmmakers have felt the pangs of – chief among them director Craig Anderson.
Anderson’s debut, Red Christmas [below], received barely a mention when it premiered at Sydney Film Festival last year, and despite the fact the Dee Wallace-starring film remains an intelligent and lovingly shot homage to ’80s slashers, it struggled to connect with Australian reviewers. “There was one review, by a blogger,” Anderson says of that initial frosty reception.
Dee Wallace in Red Christmas
“When it screened at [American genre film festival] Fantasia the following month, there was a 700-seat auditorium, over 20 reviews, loads of talks with sales agents, two days of publicity, and it screened between a Marilyn Manson film and Kevin Smith film. People really liked it and I was reminded of why I made it. The horror community in Australia has embraced it, but internationally it has found a place. A US distributor is now releasing it theatrically in six US cities.”
Sean Byrne, the director of The Devil’s Candy, received a similar reception when his film screened at SFF. The reviews he got, though strong, came mostly from smaller-scale outlets, and there was little in the way of the myth-making that gets drummed up in support of American indie darlings. Only now is his film receiving the anticipation it has long been due, thanks in no small part to the work of American outlets like Geek Magazine and the website Bloody Disgusting.
The Devil's Candy
And there are still more films that have been rejected critically and commercially – dozens more released over the last few years. Red Billabong [below], for example – a flawed but fascinating creature feature that tried to engage with Australia’s cultural and mythic past via the language of action horror films – received barely any reviews from major publications.
“Dramas do so well for Australians,” that film’s star Tim Pocock told the BRAG while promoting the film. “You look at something like Animal Kingdom, which put so many Australian actors and creatives on the map. [So] that’s the thing that film bodies and investors feel confident in making. Whereas the bigger budget films … they are a bigger gamble, and they don’t necessarily pay off. So a lot of filmmakers are scared of making that gamble.”
And yet despite those pressures, and despite the hundreds of genre films that have sunk without a trace, the Australian horror community remains resilient. In the face of widespread refusal, Ozploitation fans and filmmakers have merely become hardened.
“The horror community is very supportive,” Anderson explains. “They have a real passion for film. They share information, facts, figures, methodologies and fandom. They all want horror to do well. There are no pretences and no snobbery. The Australian film industry is still very traditional. It is far more tied onto archaic ideas of art, process and assumed audience expectations.”
Such an attitude is echoed by the likes of Briony Kidd, filmmaker, theorist and mastermind behind the Stranger With My Face genre film festival. “Horror is not about big names or state-of-the-art production values, it’s about story and creativity,” Kidd explains. “Working in this area levels the playing field, perhaps. In my observation, horror fans don’t care where a film comes from or who made it, as long as there’s a new cool twist on the genre or something they haven’t seen before.”
As far as Kidd is concerned, any issues that genre films face come from a small collection of naysayers. Audiences are not the problem, and finding people to fill cinemas will never be an issue. “I think audiences actually love horror,” says Kidd. “They always have and they always will … If you look at what’s dominating the international box office these days – Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter – it’s pretty ridiculous to claim that there’s a limited audience for genre. Happily there is a lot of energy in this area at the moment, the genre festival circuit is growing and there are new approaches and a new enthusiasm.”
And there is evidence enough to suggest that such enthusiasm will result, however slowly, in a true acceptance of genre delights. Sparked by the success of Not Quite Hollywood and the endless work of Tarantino, Kermode and Heller-Nicholas – not to mention so many others – Ozploitation classics like Road Games and Night Of The Damned are rapidly being rediscovered.
That’s not even to mention the power of streaming. As online entertainment services make horror increasingly acceptable and easy to find, filmmakers like McLean can turn to such outlets in order to make the edgy works of art that some production companies might baulk at. Wolf Creek’s second life as a popular streamable series available via Stan has horror fans hoping that large-scale entertainment companies will remember the market that exists for genre film, and that such blood-soaked delights will remain the norm rather than the exception.
But even on the off chance that streaming services don’t back horror cinema the way some are hoping, there will always be companies like Monster, the creative powerhouse behind such celebrations of extremity as the Travelling Sideshow. That showcase of genre delights is heading to Sydney this month, bringing with it a raft of highly anticipated Australian horror films that will rub shoulders with acclaimed works like Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
And, of course, there will always be horror film audiences. No matter how much work some critics might do to try and halt the expansion of genre delights, no matter how often they might turn a blind eye to mould-breaking movies lurching about their backyards, their work will mean nothing if people continue to spend money on what they love. “It comes down to Australian audiences demanding and backing Australian genre films,” Kidd says, simply. “Audiences have the power.” ◼︎