Terror Down Under – The Evolution of Australian Horror Cinema
Australia has developed a unique voice in the global film landscape, with its isolated setting and expansive landscapes lending themselves well to stories of suspense and horror. While Australian cinema has explored various genres over the decades, horror films have emerged as a particularly fascinating and culturally poignant area.
Horror cinema has steadily evolved in Australia, reflecting the country’s changing identity and attitudes. From early ghost stories drawing on colonial folklore, to unsettling gothic thrillers tapping into the vast remoteness of the Australian outback, horror films down under have delved into primal fears of the unknown. As the nation has become more urbanized, the horror genre has adapted to exploring darker urban legends and exploiting modern anxieties.
We will trace the origins of Australian horror, from Indigenous tales to early cinematic experiments, and examine how the genre has developed alongside the country’s shifting social, cultural and political landscape. Key themes and common tropes will be analysed, from the terrors of the bush to uncanny legends around lost children. The most influential films and directors will be discussed, highlighting classics like Picnic at Hanging Rock, as well as more recent breakthrough hits such as The Babadook. We will also consider Australian horror’s wider influence on global cinema and explore its future directions. It’s time to shine a spooky spotlight on the Antipodes.
Way back when…
The origins of horror cinema in Australia draw on the country’s unique landscape and cultural heritage. Indigenous myths and legends were often steeped in the supernatural, with cautionary tales of spirits and demons. These stories would influence later colonial works, as European settlers tried to understand and control their new surroundings through imaginative fictions.
The unsettled era after colonization gave rise to many ghost stories and Gothic tales, as the harsh Australian bush was seen as disorienting and filled with strange, unknowable threats. Writers like Henry Lawson captured the unease of the frontier experience in uncanny sketches and campfire yarns. Eerie legends around places like the Blue Mountains captured the public’s imagination.
Australia’s early experiments with cinema in the 1900s gravitated toward sensationalist shorts and melodramas. The remoteness and rugged beauty of the outback made it a fitting place to tell uncanny stories on film. Ken G. Hall’s 1932 movie The Haunted Barn gave audiences an early Hollywood-inspired horror thriller.
As the country urbanized, horror evolved beyond the wilderness to explore social tensions. The arrival of immigrants after WWII brought concerns of invasion and contamination. Films like the 1954 movie The Green Line tapped into xenophobic fears around foreigners. Allegorical sci-fi horrors about mutant animals reflected anxieties about nuclear testing and industrialization.
Horror also became a vessel for cultural criticism and anti-authoritarian sentiment. The 1970s “Ozploitation” boom saw daring genre films like Patrick (1978) take aim at rigid social conformity. Later decades would see Australia’s complex colonial history woven into psychological horrors and creature features.
Nature and the Outback
The harsh beauty of the Australian wilderness has long provided fodder for horror films. The isolating vastness of the outback transforms into a place of great danger in films like Walkabout (1971), where the bush becomes utterly alienating. In Razorback (1984), a wild boar stalks the remote countryside, tapping into fears of the predatory animal kingdom. More recent films like Wolf Creek (2005) have mined the gothic potential of the outback as a place totally removed from society and law. The desert transforms into an expansive trap where nightmares come true.
Urban Legends and Myths
Australia has developed a rich tradition of myths and legends that reveal society’s darkest undercurrents. The mystery of the vanished Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) draws on folklore of people disappearing in the wilderness. The legend of the Bunyip emerges from the swamps in 1990’s Dark Age. Tales of ghosts along old convict trails inspired films like Lake Mungo (2008), using “found footage” style. Fears around “lost children” being taken by sinister forces are sharpened in horrors like Storm Warning (2007) and The Loved Ones (2009). These films tap into enduring urban myths familiar to Australians.
Horror has long been a genre where Australian filmmakers explore societal tensions and problems allegorically. Early films used radioactive monster tropes to criticize Cold War fears and nuclear testing, seen in The Crawling Eye (1957). Racist paranoia drove invasion thrillers like They’re Coming! (1961) depicting the Red Menace. Resentment around the Vietnam War informed Ted Kotcheff’s seminal Wake In Fright (1971).
More recently, horrors like Bad Boy Bubby (1993) expose domestic abuse behind closed doors in suburbia. Japanese Story (2003) addresses delicate cross-cultural relationships. Migrant experiences are explored in frights like 2021’s Here Out West. Horror often provides subversive space to tackle sensitive themes related to Australia’s past and present.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – Peter Weir’s haunting gothic thriller follows a group of schoolgirls who mysteriously vanish during an outing. The film’s ambiguous ending leaves an unsettling, dreamlike impression.
Wake in Fright (1971) – Ted Kotcheff’s brutal psychological horror explores the backwardness and toxicity of outback culture, dubbed “as close to definitive Australian cinema as it gets” by Nick Cave.
Razorback (1984) – Russell Mulcahy’s inventive Ozploitation entry pits a wild razorback boar against Gregory Harrison’s hunter protagonist in the outback.
Modern Horror Gems
Wolf Creek (2005) – Greg McLean’s ultraviolent horror follows backpackers stalked by crazed serial killer Mick Taylor in remote Australian locations. It helped reinvigorate Australian horror globally.
The Babadook (2014) – Jennifer Kent’s atmospheric allegorical tale uses a bogeyman myth to explore grief and trauma. Essie Davis’ performance carries its psychological tension.
Lake Mungo (2008) – Joel Anderson’s mockumentary style horror subtly explores family secrets after a girl drowns, blurring lines between fiction and reality.
Roadgames (1981) – Stacy Keach hitchhikes across the nullarbor plains in Richard Franklin’s Hitchcockian thriller, clashing wits with a potential serial killer.
Long Weekend (1978) – Colin Eggleston’s eco-horror resonates today in its depiction of nature’s revenge on a callous suburban couple’s camping trip gone awry.
The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) – Peter Weir’s satirical, folklore-inspired entry kickstarted the Ozploitation boom with its fictional town of deranged car enthusiasts.
Australia has cultivated some pioneering directors and producers who have left a distinct mark on horror cinema both locally and globally.
Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Ted Kotcheff is a towering figure. His unflinching 1971 classic Wake in Fright set the blueprint for hard-edged Australian horror. Kotcheff captured the country’s landscapes and personalities with an uncompromising eye.
Brian Trenchard-Smith was a versatile director central to the Ozploitation boom. With films like Turkey Shoot (1982), Trenchard-Smith reveled in excessive, darkly comedic horror, courting international controversy. He epitomized the punk rock ethos of this era’s genre productions.
Jennifer Kent has emerged as a contemporary force, with The Babadook’s critical success signalling a new generation for Australian horror. Her feminist perspective on domestic monsters and intimate terrors has resonated globally.
Pioneering producers like Antony I. Ginnane financed and supported many defining works. Ginnane facilitated classics like Patrick (1978), helmed by Richard Franklin who slashed a unique style. Other notable directors include Simon Wincer for Razorback and Greg McLean for Wolf Creek’s nihilistic savagery.
These influential figures engineered a wave of bold Australian horror, often on shoestring budgets. Their impact is still felt through those carrying the torch, like Leigh Whannell, James Wan and Robert Conolly.
Australia’s unique brand of horror has had a significant impact beyond its shores, influencing global filmmakers and wider horror genres.
The raw, rugged sensibilities of films like Wake in Fright and Walkabout made waves internationally in the 1970s arthouse scene. Their fresh perspectives on the gothic outback inspired comparisons to trendsetting US indie horrors like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The Ozploitation boom in the following decades cultivated a punk spirit that traveled widely. Brian Trenchard-Smith’s unrated visions, like Turkey Shoot, resonated with international horror fans hungry for excess and boundary pushing.
Contemporary hits like Wolf Creek and The Babadook have amplified Australia’s reputation for compelling horror stories. Greg McLean and Jennifer Kent have since directed Hollywood projects, injecting fresh approaches. Other directors like James Wan have introduced ideas from their Australian education into worldwide blockbusters.
Noteworthy crossovers include 1976’s Doctor Death, co-directed by Eddie Saeta and starring John Hargreaves. Filmed in Australia with Italian and French backing, it pioneered transnational collaborations. Recent US co-productions like 2010’s The Tunnel spotlight Australia’s global appeal as a horror setting.
With Australian horror talent increasingly spread worldwide, the interplay between homegrown stories and global influences will likely only deepen. Directors raised on the Outback Gothic will bring fresh flavor to international projects.
Recommendations For Australian Horror Highlights
- Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – Peter Weir’s haunting tale of vanished schoolgirls is a Gothic masterpiece.
- Wolf Creek (2005) – Greg McLean’s ultraviolent thriller plays on very real fears of remote terror.
- The Babadook (2014) – Jennifer Kent explores grief through a chilling storybook monster.
- Wake in Fright (1971) – Ted Kotcheff’s brutal psychological outback horror is widely acclaimed.
- Saw (2004) – James Wan’s shoestring gore-fest kickstarted one of horror’s biggest recent franchises.
- The Loved Ones (2009) – Sean Byrne’s demented prom night provides pitch black humor.
- Roadgames (1981) – Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis clash wits with a highway killer.
- Wyrmwood (2014) – Kiah Roache-Turner’s inventive zombie romp adds dark humor down under.
- The Tunnel (2011) – Found footage fears in the abandoned tunnels beneath Sydney.
- Razorback (1984) – Russell Mulcahy’s Ozploitation creature feature is big, gory fun.