Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Australian Gothic: Film Weirdness from Down Under

"Two days ago, I saw a vehicle that would haul that tanker. You want to get out of here? You talk to me."
(Gibson only had 17 lines of dialogue in Mad Max 2, for many the epitome of Australian Gothic)

This became a longer post than I intended but that's the way it is with me and Australian Gothic film. I fell in love with what is termed Australian Gothic films in the late 1980's when I was a teenager. Australia does not have a strong tradition of making genre films but we do have a strong sense of the land and environment (for better or worse) which is also a major theme in our creative arts.

"Long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a land peopled by monsters. The idea of its existence was disputed, was even heretical for a time, and with the advent of the transportation of convicts its darkness seemed confirmed. The Antipodes was a world of reversals, the dark subconscious of Britain. It was, for all intents and purposes, Gothic par excellence, the dungeon of the world. It is perhaps for this reason that the Gothic as a mode has been a consistent presence in Australia since European settlement. Certainly the fact that settlement began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the rise of the Gothic as a sensationalist and resonantly influential form, contributes to its impact on the literature of Australia. There may be other reasons for its appeal. It is certainly possible to argue that the generic qualities of the Gothic mode lend themselves to articulating the colonial experience inasmuch as each emerges out of a condition of deracination and uncertainty, of the familiar transposed into unfamiliar space. It is this very quality which Freud identified as the condition of the uncanny, where the home is unhomely — where the heimlich becomes unheimlich — and yet remains sufficiently familiar to disorient and disempower. All migrations represent a dislocation of sorts, but Australia posed particularly vexing questions for its European immigrants. Nature, it seemed to many, was out of kilter. To cite the familiar cliches: its trees shed their bark, swans were black rather than white, and the seasons were reversed. And while these features represented a physical perversion, it was widely considered to be metonymic of an attendant spiritual dis/ease." Turcotte, G, Australian Gothic, in Mulvey Roberts, M (ed), The Handbook to Gothic Literature, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1998, 10-19.

The heart of the Gothic in Australia is 'the outback', terrifying expanses of seeming wilderness (to the fragile European eye) populated by fear and disappointment. An article on the recent spate of Australian horror films in the Sydney Morning Herald today describe Australia as "a scary place. The size of the United States, but with only the population of greater Los Angeles, its outback means you can get about as far away from civilisation as it's possible to get." Getting lost, disappearing, being trapped or escaping from the outback are three staple themes in Australian Gothic.

"We call what we do 'Australian Gothic'," says Everett DeRoche, a key figure in Australian horror who wrote the scripts for classics such as Patrick (1978), The Long Weekend (1978) and Razorback (1984). The term was coined to describe Razorback, and anyone who has seen this smoky, heavily backlit tale of a giant pig terrorising the outback will understand why. "Australia doesn't have that iconic 'haunted house' that we are familiar with from American movies. But it does have the outback, and people's fear of that, that agoraphobia."

The Herald article mentioned a few classic works of Australian Gothic on film, I thought I would expand on it:

Wake in Fright (1971)(Outback)
"Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There's nothing else out here."

John Grant, a young teacher, looks forward to a holiday in the outback but instead finds himself trapped in a nightmarish small mining town where everyone seems to have some sort of mental instability. Succumbing to alcoholism and male rape, the teacher starts to lose his grip as his city ways are stripped away and a new, more brutal, self emerges.

The Cars that Ate Paris (1974)

Peter Weir's first full-length feature length film, this film has something of a punk aesthetic to it.

A small town in rural Australia (Paris) makes its living by causing car accidents and salvaging any valuables from the wrecks. Into this town come brothers Arthur and George. George is killed when the Parisians cause their car to crash, but Arthur survives and is brought into the community as an orderly at the hospital. But Paris is not problem free. Not only do the Parisians have to be careful of outsiders (such as insurance investigators), but they also have to cope with the young people of the town who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Written by Mark Thompson {}

A man's car breaks down in a country town, somewhere in New South Wales. His brother has been killed, and his fear of cars has returned full-blown, yet accidents around here are more common than strict coincidence would allow, and just leaving the town becomes a problem all of its own. Especially when the various factions in town start a feud that has been brewing for a long time... Written by David Carroll {}

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Three female students and a school teacher disappear on an excursion to Hanging Rock, in Victoria, on Valentine's Day, 1900. Peter Weir's break though film is simple but beautiful and disturbing tale. Underlying subtexts of sexual longing and innocence are played out among the ancient basalt of the Australian bush. Despite a David Hamilton style to some of the photography this film really works on a symbolic level with just enough mystery to involve the viewer in the horror of it all.

Inn of the Damned (1975)
The tale revolves around the mysterious vanishing of guests from a hostel deep in the Australian rain forests of Gippsland, Victoria in 1896, run by the Straulles, an Austrian couple. Unfortunately the owners of this wayside inn are simply not as sinisterly menacing as Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Hitchcock's classic, `Psycho'. Originally an outstanding stage actress, Dame Judith Anderson (Caroline Straulle, who is obviously fussy about the social standing of her guests/victims, bemusingly objecting to a whore) gave a more convincing performance as the chillingly malicious housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock's 1940 version of Daphne Du Maurier's `Rebecca', for which she was deservedly nominated an Oscar. Her co-star (Joseph Furst) prior to this, seems to have made a career out of playing caricature mad Austrians, as in the Bond movie `Diamonds Are Forever'. There is an attempt at an ominous moodiness in the guesthouse but it is hardly developed to any great level and the various murders are weakly staged, accompanied by Bob Young's strangely clonkingly unsuspenseful music, which at other times can be jauntily, and even eerily, melodic. One wonders why the victims didn't just simply get out of bed rather than screaming hysterically whilst waiting to be crushed by the slowly descending canopy?

Patrick (1978)
We open in classic exploitation style as a mature couple have sex, to the hostility of her adult son (Robert Thompson), whom we later find out to be the Patrick of the title. He throws an electric heater into the post-coital bath, and then we flash to the future. Whether by the "accident" that killed his mother or sheer mental shutdown, Patrick has been in a coma for three years. His new nurse, Kathy (Susan Penhaligon), is sympathetic to a being everyone else, from Doctor Roget (a bizarre Robert Helpmann) to the other nurses, call a pathetic piece of dead flesh. Kathy senses something is amiss when Patrick displays a seemingly deliberate spitting behaviour.
As the story unfolds we find Kathy's separated husband Ed and new lover Brian, both who have her in their sights, being victimized by a telekinetic Patrick, who strikes out from behind his coma in many different ways. He tries to drown Brian, and Ed is stuck in a lift for what seems like days. Then things really get rough, when Doctor Roget starts giving ol' Patrick shock therapy in his experimentations to rouse Patrick. To protect himself, Patrick electrocutes the Matron down at the generator plant, and begins flinging furniture around as Roget mounts an all-out attack with an axe. Patrick is too strong though, and locking Roget outside his hospital room, confronts the woman he loves with a terrible choice.

The Long Weekend (1978)
When a suburban couple go camping for the weekend at a remote beach, they discover that nature isn't in an accommodating mood.

Razorback (1984)
A wild, vicious pig terrorizes the Australian outback. The first victim is a small child who is killed. The child's granddad is brought to trial for killing the child but acquitted. The next victim is an American TV-journalist. Her husband Carl gets there and starts to search for the truth. The local inhabitants won't really help him, but he is joined by a hunter and a female farmer to find the beast.
The pig is played by a Volkswagen Beetle in leather. It was directed by Russell Mulcahy who made videos for Duran Duran and other early MTV stars. A full sized, fully animatronic model razorback cost $250 thousand to build and is seen for a single second in the movie.

Dead End Drive In (1986)

"There's a party every day, a movie every night, and all the junk food you can eat. What more can a kid want... except to get out."

Dead En Drive In is a personal favorite of mine. Adapted from a Peter Carey short story (Crabs, 1972). A review from IMDb:

After the world's economy collapsed, Australia was turned into a wasteland where the unemployed youth uses the street as a battlefield and the law is forgotten. To fight this, the Government uses a Drive-In to lock them and keep them controlled using fast food and movies. A young man named Crabs (Ned Manning) is trapped in this way, but instead of becoming a conformist member of the nihilistic youth, he decides to fight back and escape no matter the cost.

Hidden under this sci-fi/horror tale of an apocalyptic society is a very well-written plot with social commentary included. "Dead-End Drive In" is a great story against the conformism. Crabs is trapped in an apparent paradise where he can get all the fast food he wants and do nothing but live each day, but instead he chooses to fight back and try to escape from the Drive-In and to return to his family. He knows this "paradise" is false, and that the only thing worth fighting for is real freedom.

Stretching the budget to the max, Trenchard-Smith manages to create very well done scenes with the very few resources he has. He makes a great use of his locations and the film is packed with high-octane action and a healthy dose of humor. Still, the film remains focused on its message and Carey makes a portrait of present-day society, as racist, conformist and violent as the youth depicted in the film. It is not a horror movie in the sense of being scary, but it is haunting in the sense that even when it is a fictitious scenery, it is not hard to believe that humanity will behave the way the conformist teenager do in the film. Author: José Luis Rivera Mendoza (jluis1984) from Mexico

Smoke Em If You Got Em (1988)
Atomic war has destroyed human society. The survivors wander in the ruins slowly dying of radiation sickness. Two men stumble upon a bomb shelter with music coming from it. They have found the last party on earth. Admission to the party depends upon being able to donate some form of intoxicant. Our two wanderers find a bottle of wine in the wreckage. once inside the 80's Australian Blue Ruin are the house band to a anarchist autonomous zone of freaks and the dying. The film is a brilliant essay in black humor.

Ghosts....of the Civil Dead (1988)
I heard that it took inspiration from In the Belly of the Beast: The Prison Letters of Jack Henry Abbott. Also that it is based on the testimony of David Hale, a warder at USP Marion, Illinois, USA. This is an intense film. Nick cave was once of the scriptwriters and he stars in it with an amazing performance as the deranged child murderer Maynard ("Officer, come here. I wanna spit in your fucking eye!"). A high tech top security prison in the desert of central Australia is in lockdown, with the hardcore inmates confined to their cells. The film unfolds slowly on how the lockdown came about and the culture of the prison with sex, drugs and violence all for sale. It culminates in a scene of extreme and graphic violence. The music is done by Blixa Bargeld, Mick Harvey and Nick Cave with great singing by Anita Lane.

Body Melt (1993)
Starring Ian Smith who played Harold Bishop in Neighbours as the evil Dr. Carrera this is B grade horror at its best. Residents of peaceful Pebbles Court, Homesville, are being used unknowingly as test experiments for a new 'Body Drug' that causes rapid body decomposition (melting skin etc.) and painful death. The suburbs have never been so horrible.

Bad Boy Bubby (1993)
Fantastic film. The first thirty minutes of "Bad Boy Bubby" are great horror. Bubby (Nicholas Hope), a strange, retarded man-child, has been imprisoned by his mom (Claire Benito) for thirty years. He hasn't left the house, can't leave the house, because mom's been busy having sex with him and perverting his sponge-like mind. She tells him the world outside is filled with poison gas and because they only have one gas mask he can never leave the room they are in. Early on, the film alienates viewers by throwing in a scene involving the killing of a cat. After an act of violence which frees him Bubby ventures into the outside world and has a series of amazing, hilarious adventures in which his outsider status is often misinterpreted. He dresses as a pastor. He fronts a rock band, gets intimate with a real disabled woman (Heater Slattery), and discovers life beyond the walls of his prison. The film is extremely original and daring, and Hope's performance as Bubby is totally believable. It was shot over a long period by a number of cinematographers.

The Proposition (2005)
Again written by Nick Cave. A brilliant piece of work that I would describe as a coming of age for Australian film. The Proposition is our interpretation of Heart of Darkness, with lines from John Hurt as Jellon Lamb echoing Charles Marlow ("But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad." p. 66) ;

"We are white men, Sir, not beasts. Oh, he sits up there in those melancholy hills; some say he sleeps in caves like a beast, slumbers deep like the Kraken. The Blacks say that he is a spirit. The Troopers will never catch him. Common force is meaningless, Mr. Murphy, as he squats up there on his impregnable perch. So I wait, Mr. Murphy. I wait."

Rural Australia in the late nineteenth century: Capt. Stanley and his men capture two of the four Burns brothers, Charlie and Mike. Their gang is held responsible for attacking the Hopkins farm, raping pregnant Mrs. Hopkins and murdering the whole family. Arthur Burns, the eldest brother and the gang's mastermind, remains at large has and has retreated to a mountain hideout. Capt. Stanley's proposition to Charlie is to gain pardon and - more importantly - save his beloved younger brother Mike from the gallows by finding and killing Arthur within nine days. Almost unbearable violence is used like a paint brush, spraying us with the cruel colonial process as it destroys the oppressed (Aboriginal, Irish, Women) and uses those who believe in it to achieve ends they don't understand. The soundtrack is also a masterpeice. The trailer is HERE.

Wolf Creek (2006)
In 1999, Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips) and his two British girlfriends Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi) buy an old car to travel through the outback of Australia with little money. Their first stop is to visit a meteor crater in the isolated Wolf Creek National Park. When they go to their car, they find that it does not start and without option, they decide to spend the night in the car. Later, a local friendly man, the hillbilly Mick Taylor (John Jarrat), stops his truck, offers to help the trio, finds that they need to replace the coil and proposes to tow them to his camp, where he could fix the car. When they accept the proposal, their dreamy vacation turns into a scary nightmare. the website for the film is HERE.

More Australian Gothic Horror films can be found at The Encyclopedia of fantastic Film and Television site for Australian Horror.


Thomas Anderson said...

This is a great article and I have found it very helpful to my research. Would you say that the movie Chopper also fits in to this 'Australian Gothic' category. I find it intriguing that we have such deep underlying presence of such gritty and nihilisic themes in film that have manifested throughout the years in these almost abstract forms. I ponder why this genre, or even movement isn't studied more, manifesting itself even further in new film making. Is it that our eyes are too glazed over by the American sub cultures now of big special effects (Avatar) and super heroes (Batman/Avengers)?

I have found this inspiring and will be looking into these films as I have seen a couple but not all (Dead End Drive In sounds particularly interesting). Cheers mate.

((Jim)) said...

Glad you liked it Andrew. Have you seen Animal Kingdom (2010); a brutal film that has Australian Gothic tones even with it being mostly set in suburban Melbourne. Here's a taste mate

The Australian Gothic genre is born of the landscape, and while at the moment we are digging and ripping it up, its still there and the Euro Australians are mostly still afraid of it. There will be more from the genre, as long as there are deranged men with shotguns living in lonely valleys along the eastern seaboard.