A couple of years ago everyone’s favourite Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue released “Matesong”, a knowingly cringe-inducing musical tourism advert aimed at British holidaymakers. The Land Down Under might be a great place to visit for a chilled out beach vacation, but this continent has also been a hotbed of vivid horror and thriller filmmaking ever since the lucrative Ozploitaition craze of the 1970s and 80s.
Australian horror could never be accused of being just one thing, so here are 10 very different recommended starting points for which scary films from this part of the world to watch: 10 Great Australian Horror Films.
1. Wake in Fright (1971)
A mild-mannered country school teacher breaks up for the Christmas holidays and begins to make his way to the city to see his girlfriend. While in his overnight stop off in the isolated Yabba, he loses all his money gambling and falls in with a group of constantly-boozing locals. Before long his life is falling apart and he finds himself trapped in a constant hazy cycle of drinking.
Wake in Fright might not be considered strictly a horror film in pure genre terms, but it does contain horror of three kinds: the horror of alcoholism, the horror of small-town over-friendliness, and the horror of when the former two collide. It’s a terrifying idea to any introvert, to be overwhelmed and led astray by loud, drunk, vaguely threatening but endlessly hospitable locals (chiefly represented by a chameleonic Donald Pleasence). It’s an oppressive atmosphere that builds, and this along with some bad trip imagery and a very upsetting unsimulated kangaroo hunt scene makes you feel as unsettled and drained as lead character John Grant.
The film’s marketing was botched upon its initial release and the original film negative had degraded to the extent it impacted how widely the film could be appreciated by worldwide audiences for decades, but today it is far easier to see and recognise alongside its more acclaimed and transcendent contemporary cousin Walkabout.
2. Dead Calm (1989)
A couple grieving the tragic loss of their only child go on a therapeutic yacht cruise in the Pacific and come about a sinking schooner and its only surviving crew member. But is this castaway really an innocent victim of an accident at sea, or is something more sinister at play?
It’s quite a feat for a film that mostly takes place in bright sunshine on the open waves to make you feel intensely claustrophobic. The soundtrack does a lot of the work, but the cinematography, staging and the three performances – particularly those of Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane – keep everything taught and tense. Thanks to this pairing, Dead Calm is a bit sexy too – they play screw-me-kill-me cat and mouse aboard a yacht while poor Sam Neill is left trying not to die aboard another sinking boat as an ominous storm gathers.
The real achievement of Dead Calm as a thriller is that though for the most part it is staged in a strictly confined space, the story still feels grand and epic, with the odds against the characters surviving both acts of God and the darker side of human nature being remote at best.