Australian Gothic

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How does the Australian horror genre shape up?

There's a new new wave in horror. No, that's not a misprint. The Australian new wave of the 60s and 70s driven by directors like Fred Schepisi, Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir was a defining moment in our cultural history, but a look at the box office of most Australian films of the last decade proves those days are far behind. There are still gems, but they're few and far between amongst The Wannabes, You and Your Stupid Mate s and Hating Alison Ashley s, and deservedly so.

In 1999 two filmmakers from Maryland picked up a camcorder, sent three actor friends into the forest and turned a $40,000 passion project into a $240 million global behemoth called The Blair Witch Project. Suddenly film directors weren't a professional class living in the Hollywood Hills swimming in pools of cocaine with starlets. Anyone with a camera and an idea could be one.

Of course, The Blair Witch Project wasn't quite the revolution everyone thought. It just took advantage of immediacy and reach of the web to compress the news cycle. Revolutions in film – and horror in particular – from the slasher ( Halloween ) to the zombie film (Night of the Living Dead) have always come from lone rebels and miscreants working outside the system. As Greg McLean, writer/director of 2005's tour de force Wolf Creek and 2007's Rogue, says, "Change always comes from the ground up, not the top down."

There are two reasons horror's so in vogue at the moment. One is Hollywood's eagerness to turn popularity into cash. The other is because the directors holding the creative reigns – everyone from McLean to Tarantino, Eli Roth (Hostel) and Neil Marshall (The Descent) came of age in the video nasty era of the early 80s, when exploitation and splatter merged to become one of the most enduring genres around. Thanks to the fandom cult of such films courtesy of the aforementioned Mr Tarantino, grimy exploitation horror is big business.

And all the while, fans with cameras continue to shake up the status quo and set the course in movies.

Terror at Home

Australia occupies a unique position. With the same culture, business environment and language as the US, we've always been big moviegoers, but we're neither the ideal territory to consume or emulate Hollywood output. With a population little more than most US states, the gross from the Australia/NZ territories is chump change for global films. And with so little buying power and no self-sufficient studio system, we can't wrangle Hollywood budgets. Breakout hits like Wolf Creek or even Priscilla or Muriel's Wedding were cheap movies that got lucky (or just had decent scripts and direction, depending on your point of view).

But like no other genre, horror is the one that most attracts emerging directors. Besides being popular, it's the only genre among the traditionally expensive fields of action or sci-fi where all you need is a recipe for blood and friends who are good screamers. In 2003, Michael Spierig – half the twin brother writer/director team behind Undead – explained what a comparatively easy sell their film was to backers and distributors simply because of the genre. "You can make a low budget horror film with no stars and still sell it," Spierig said, "because the genre's the star."

Still, it's a double-edged sword. Horror's popular with audiences – particularly the lucrative teen one that will make or break your box office. But while it's easier to finance than drama (which needs a star attached) or action (that usually needs big money), it's a crowded field, so you have to do something special to stand out.

So why doesn't horror have a more natural home in Australia, if it can be done fast and cheap (indeed, that's the appeal to many fans)? Why the endless string of Look Both Ways, Somersault s, Candy s and September s that win all the awards but which audiences avoid in droves? Shane Abbess thought the same thing when he conceived Gabriel. Though not a horror film, his noir/action tale of angels and demons battling in purgatory took a lot of cues from the genres with The Matrix, Underworld and The Crow -like trappings. "One of the driving forces behind Gabriel is because in Australia we very rarely make genre films," Abbess reckons, "and the ones we have haven't been that good, so we knew we had to raise the bar and do something big, commercial and international."

Yes, many of our biggest hits, from Crocodile Dundee to The Dish have traded on a sense of 'Australian-ness'. But it doesn't always work, and for the occasions where it doesn't, some cinema institutions like love, excitement or fear are universal. Good horror travels.

That's what James Wan and Leigh Whannell found after trying to hawk their film school project around. The two young Melbournians filmed the infamous jaw trap scene that ended up in the 2004 hit Saw. The film spawned a string of sequels and wrote the duo's ticket in Hollywood, yet they couldn't find an Australian investor. US distributor Lionsgate stepped in, marketing a smash that caused much hand-wringing in Australia at letting these two young talents slip through our fingers at home. Saw was made for $1.2m, average for a 'big' Australian movie, but the global $80m haul would have been quite a return for an Australian producer.

Blood Money

So who decides what gets made in Australia, and why aren't they making horror movies? Since Wolf Creek, Greg McLean gets a lot of praise from emerging filmmakers, who report that the funding bodies in Australia don't consider horror a dirty word any more. It's easy to blame the funding bodies for the ills of Australian film, but it's lazy according to Tait Brady of the Film Finance Corporation. He says there's a culture that sees certain films go in certain directions, and until something sells, he simply doesn't see similar scripts come through the door for assessment.

" [The FFC has] always been market driven," Brady says, "so if producers come in with projects where they have other funding from sales agents and distributors and so on, that's what would get them on the table for funding here. And funding from sales agents comes from what's already selling."

The FFC also comes under fire for being elitist. When a horror film comes through the door, do they snort derisively over their lattes and turn to the next rural, 1960s coming of age story? Actually, Brady claims the assessment process is inherently no tougher on horror. "Our program is to support the most interesting, most original films," he says, "and by definition, genre films can be very derivative."

Then there's the DIY route, one a good deal of filmmakers who've made their names in horror have taken. It's the method Victorian brothers Luke and Alix Jackson went, self-financing their zombie movie When Evil Reigns to the tune of $5,000. Writer/director Alix thinks the horror resurgence is great, but cautions against one-upmanship. "At least the funding bodies are starting to realise horror is marketable," he says. "I just hope our horror films don't peak and die quickly. These extreme gore films aren't doing much for the industry as each one just tries to top the last. Effects don't make the movie, and Australia has to return to quality storytelling before jumping on this 'bloody' bandwagon."

A Dark Future

We certainly have the expertise and the tools. Australia is home to several of the world's best-known effects and production companies. When Hollywood realised Australia was a great place to make movies in the late 90s, money flooded our filmmaking economies, giving experienced practitioners room to grow and creating enough employment for a new generation bought up on popcorn blockbusters.

And thanks to new tools like cheap CGI, having no money isn't the impediment it used to be. The Spierig brothers did the 300-plus effects shots in Undead on their own computer. All that's needed is the idea and the passion to realise it, and whether you're Peter Jackson doing Bad Taste or Peter Jackson doing Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the audience can see the difference.

To extract that kind of heart, we might have the perfect filmmaking industry after all. Speaking from LA after working on the latest Resident Evil sequel, Russel (Razorback, Highlander) Mulcahy said; "You can do a film for $2m or $20m and never seem to have enough. But if you do it with enough passion and the idea is timeless and doable you shoot it accordingly."

Breakout 1 – Girls on Film

"There's a vulnerability to women," says Diana Glenn, one of the damsels in distress in Black Water, the latest horror film where hapless humans stumble into the wrong crocodile's territory.

She's talking about why women make horror so much more effective. Isn't it a bit sexist of us as a society? "Maybe," she agrees, "but it's a very instinctive reaction. Because men always have a thing of not showing how they feel, women make horror a bit more expressive because we tend to scream and cry more when we're frightened. And there's that thing about women being mothers and nurturers. Maybe we see them as more fragile."

Glenn joins a long line of Aussie girls who've gone under the tooth, knife or worse in the name of a good scream. Radha Mitchell came home to Australia to play no-nonsense river guide Kate in Greg McLean's Rogue. McLean cast his girlfriend Cassandra McGrath together with Kestie Morassi in Wolf Creek, treating them horribly at the hands of villain Mick (John Jarratt).

Brit Amelia Warner played the Joanne Lees-alike victim of an outback serial killer in the little seen Gone, and Lenka Kripac joined Alex Vaughan in the brilliant Lost Things, the most cerebral Australian horror film in ages. And who can forget the demure, angelic schoolgirls who vanished at in Peter Weir's 1975 classic Picnic at Hanging Rock?

In every case, our sense of danger's been heightened by the sight of the fairer sex in the firing line. A collective lack of faith sisters can do it for themselves, or an instinctive desire to protect the gender that bears the next generation of our species? You decide.

Breakout 2 – Australasian Horror Landmarks

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974). The surreal trappings of the New Wave given mind-bending flight by Peter Weir.

Razorback (1983). 15 years too early for the cult movement, this very cool 'Jaws on trotters' didn't interest local or US audiences.

Bad Taste (1988). Future Hollywood player Peter Jackson's first effort.

Dead Calm (1989). Philip Noyce does a slick thriller and brings Nicole Kidman to the attention of the world.

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