Australian Horror Story

What’s out there?

Recently, I’ve been suckered into watching American Horror Story, a B-grade TV serial with occasionally outstanding acting and a large budget to spend on mock fetuses in medical bottles. Now, I’m not one for blood n’ guts horror (think Saw or Hostel) – I can’t discern a plot in those films  robust enough to justify the grotesquerie. But I am fascinated by the kind of gothic that creeps up on you – that starts off as a history lesson and takes you god-knows-where.

I’ve noticed that Australian cinema does a fine line in horror and gothic themes. Wikipedia tells me this genre (at its most gory and prolific from the 70’s to the 80’s) is called Ozploitation. Movies like Razorback (tale of a giant boar terrorizing the outback and its denizens), Evil Angels (dingo ate my baby) and Mad Max  typify the genre – each figuring the Australian landscape as a quietly malign characters in their plots.

 In the last year alone, we’ve seen Sleeping Beauty, Snowtown and The Loved Ones.  The Australian gothic has a quiet, cicada-deaf stubbornness unlike its bloodied American cousins. The landscape is an essential component of Australian horror – endless skylines, punishing sun, and labyrinthine bushland are always  key characters in our own gothic tales. And it makes sense, really. Given how unknowable our country is, even to the most staunch of patriots. Living in European-style metropoles protected from the harsh undergrowth and red desert of our uninhabited country, most of us are confused by the wide expanses that lie beyond the suburban sprawl. When you combine that with our dubious colonial history – invasion, genocide for starters – is it any wonder that we’re a little scared of what’s lurking… silently waiting for retribution….. out there?

Whether we’re haunted by the unknowable spirits of Peter Weir’s Picnic on Hanging Rock, sickened by the desert privacy afforded a serial killer in Wolf Creek or made sweaty with claustrophobia by the impenetrable trees in Van Diemen’s Land – there’s something mysterious at the core of our identity we keep trying to uncover. And it’s not just cinema – it’s literature too, beginning with Marcus Clarkes’ For The Term of His Natural Life. This is a tradition carried on contemporarily by the likes of Chloe Hooper and Helen Garner, both authors whose keen powers of observation centre on the behaviour of people in oddly passive or wildly destructive local environments.

Over the next week, I am going to watch both Snowtown and Sleeping Beauty (these films fascinate me, but also make me feel worried – will I get through the gore and/or abuse?). 2012 is a year of exploring Australian cinema and culture, and trying to uncover what makes our own sense of the gothic so compelling. What is it about the land we inhabit that disquiets us so? I’ll get back to you about my impressions of these films. I’d also like you to tell me what other films of this genre you suggest worth watching. I’ll review them, and you can join in the discussion.

Wish me luck – perhaps steel yourself to the tasks and have a crack at watching these films too.

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One thought

  1. If you fancy a bit of Aussie fauna taking their revenge against a nature-disregarding couple, 1978’s Long Weekend is worth a watch. The pitiful cries of the dugong haunted me, I must say. And Turkey Shoot, despite having a poultry title, is best described as a down-under version of The Running Man, with a gang of rich hunters setting out into the wilderness to track human prey.

    Saw Sleeping Beauty and Snowtown too – and I completely agree, the sense of quietude amid the horror tends to make one feel more uncomfortable, rather than the cheap shocks of their American counterparts.

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