August 2023

Arts & Letters

Terror Australis: The rise of Australian horror

By Harry Windsor

Lily LaTorre in Run Rabbit Run

Horror’s low budgets and broad church have seen a group of local filmmakers gain Hollywood’s attention

Lucy Campbell was nervous. In March, the South Australian screenwriter had travelled to Austin, Texas. Her debut feature was playing at South by Southwest (SXSW), the music and film festival that has launched careers as well as Oscar winners such as Everything Everywhere All at Once. Watching her film with an audience, she tells me, she saw it with fresh eyes. They seemed into it, and she was hanging on their every gasp. Suddenly, it dawned on her: “This audience is kinda scared.”

Monolith (screening this month at the Melbourne International Film Festival) tells the story of a young woman, a podcast host, who becomes obsessed with strange brick-like artefacts, collector’s items that seem to unravel the lives of those who possess them. She starts podding about it, and the popularity of her show rises along with her paranoia as she continues digging. Campbell’s film had been made with the support of a state government scheme designed to develop and finance films made by emerging filmmakers at a low budget, and she’d written it with that budget in mind: Monolith takes place almost entirely in a house in the Adelaide Hills.

Even during the shoot, Campbell tells me, she wasn’t sure exactly how to classify the film, which has a tenor of mounting dread. A psychological thriller, maybe? Then she travelled to Austin with its director, Matt Vesely, and the Americans provided an answer: it’s a horror film, duh. “They obviously felt like that’s the easiest way to understand that film,” she says. Campbell and Vesely were told by managers and producers that they should be positioning themselves as horror filmmakers, and a trailer was cut that foregrounded the film’s genre elements.

A couple of days after their sold-out premiere, Campbell joined the film’s star, Lily Sullivan, at the premiere of the other film Sullivan was representing at the festival: Evil Dead Rise, the latest in the long and storied horror franchise. “And it’s 2000 horror fans watching this film,” Campbell says, “and they’re screaming and laughing and yelling and booing. It was a real vibe, and it was like, yeah, this is what horror fans are like. They’re really, really into it, and really vocal, especially in America.”

Also attending the festival were brothers Colin and Cameron Cairnes, there to premiere their third film, Late Night with the Devil (also screening at MIFF). The writer-directors began their careers with 2012’s 100 Bloody Acres, a horror-comedy that saw them compared to the Coens, but which failed to crack any of the big international festivals. They’d heard whispers, at the time, that it was in contention for Midnight Madness, the genre sidebar of the Toronto International Film Festival. Instead, 100 Bloody Acres played a few cinemas before vanishing, and its Australian run was compromised by the lag between its release in America and at home, during which it was pirated heavily. The brothers’ second film, 2016’s Scare Campaign, disappeared even more quickly, and again the lack of festival play made it harder to cut through. “You’ve just gotta work that much harder to get the movie out there,” says Colin. “You feel like you’re pushing shit up the hill.”

They were relieved when Late Night with the Devil nabbed a berth at SXSW, which has become the preferred destination for studios to premiere their big horror movies. The festival’s pop culture–savvy audience felt well suited to the Cairnes’s film, which takes place on the set of an American late-night talk show in 1977. The host is an also-ran in a TV landscape dominated by Johnny Carson, and he hatches an idea to juice the ratings: to host the Halloween special to end them all. He invites onto the show a psychic, a sceptic, and a girl who’s supposedly possessed and her psychiatrist. Things go predictably awry, and the film’s conceit is that we’re watching the actual tape of that special, which has gone down in American television infamy. Shot at Melbourne’s Docklands in 20 days, it’s another single-location chiller, but an ingeniously dimensional one. And it’s one of the rare films set in the United States but shot here that doesn’t feel phoney.

SXSW crowds lapped it up, and the brothers kept hearing the same refrain in their meetings with Hollywood types: that it’s all about horror, right now. “There’s obviously all the big tentpole Marvel stuff,” Colin says, “but other than that – it’s horror.”

After its SXSW premiere, Evil Dead Rise went on to make more money than any previous film in the franchise, the latest in a string of horror films that have over-performed in American cinemas just as a series of adult dramas – think most of last year’s Oscar nominees – have failed to gin up much interest at the box office. The success of original films such as Barbarian (produced by Roy Lee, who also produced Late Night with the Devil) and Smile (featuring another Australian, Caitlin Stasey) has demonstrated that you don’t always need superheroes or even stars to fill seats – so long as you’ve got a horror film that works. If films such as Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning and John Wick: Chapter 4 are essentially theme-park rides, then horror films are the park’s ghost trains, satisfying the same desire for communal fun, thrills and spills – but made for a fraction of the price.

Recently, Colin and Cameron have been fielding emails from Australian producers enquiring about horror projects, even from producers they suspect aren’t all that passionate about the genre. And the American premiere has meant they’re suddenly on Hollywood’s radar.

Meanwhile, Monolith was picked up by a distributor for an American theatrical run. Though Campbell “never really thought of myself as a straight horror filmmaker”, she was jazzed by the whole experience, and “now I’m quite happy with horror, because I actually think there’s lots of things that can be horror”. Campbell and Vesely are hard at work on their second film, and “we deliberately have moved more into the horror realm for that. So yeah, I think it was a bit of an awakening in terms of what audiences really respond to.”

The appeal of horror to up-and-coming filmmakers such as Campbell is nothing new. “There’s definitely a lower barrier to entry when it comes to horror content,” producer Lauren Simpson tells me. Simpson and director Nick Kozakis made Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism (screening at MIFF) after enduring Melbourne’s sixth Covid lockdown. They just wanted to get out and make a movie, cobbling together the funds to make it themselves in the time-honoured tradition of George Romero and Sam Raimi. They’re not sure the film will receive a cinema release after its festival run – the marketing spend would be prohibitively expensive – but they’re hopeful of finding an audience of fellow horror fans on a streaming platform. “Films are niche now,” says Simpson. “And that has helped horror.”

Based on a historical incident, Godless is about a man convinced his wife is possessed and therefore that helping her is beyond the reach of traditional medicine. He enlists members of his church to help exorcise the demon. As the film goes on, a queasy question begins to form: are the only monsters here the humans? The film premiered at the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, a festival devoted entirely to horror fare, and Simpson says she was stressed before the first screening. She wasn’t sure if an audience of gorehounds at a horror festival would accept what could, in the final analysis, be described as a “domestic abuse story”.

The irony of that gets at how permeable the definition of what a horror film can be. It’s a broad church. Kozakis points out that Mad Max is a horror film of sorts, full of squishy make-up effects and exploding eyeballs. Its ending even famously inspired Saw, the first film directed by RMIT-educated Australian James Wan, the most commercially successful horror filmmaker working today.

But if the popularity of horror is hardly new, it also seems clear that something has shifted. “Horror has always been the sandbox for ambitious filmmakers with not a ton of money,” says Phil Nobile Jr, the editor-in-chief of horror bible Fangoria. But “we’re now seeing that decades-long tradition colliding with a new respectability for horror”. Horror is no longer disreputable. In fact, it’s aspirational. “Jordan Peele cracked an egg for a lot of people.”

Peele was best known for comedy before his smash-hit debut, 2017’s Get Out. He’s now at the vanguard of a new generation of acclaimed American filmmakers, alongside the likes of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers. (Eggers’ debut, The Witch, is the single most referenced film among the Australian producers, writers and directors who spoke to me for this article.) All three are writer-directors best known for horror films, and the rise of Aster and Eggers has been in tandem with the ascension of A24, the New York–based distributor turned mini studio that released their first films.

A24’s rise also coincided with the arrival of an Australian horror film that Nobile Jr regards as hugely influential: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a story of postnatal depression made manifest as something monstrous, dangerous to both mother and child. In the years since, he says, there has been “an influx of films that were explicitly about grief. And explicitly about having some kind of subtext on their sleeves. I think The Babadook was a real harbinger of that kind of horror.”

The acclaim that greeted Kent’s film has been reverberating at home, too. Single-location films are smart from a budgetary standpoint; among other things, you can save time and money by cutting down on travel costs. But the exigencies of low-budget filmmaking have also dovetailed, in the years since The Babadook, with an industry-wide push for female voices behind the camera, ushering in a wave of female-fronted, largely housebound films about trauma and mental health.

If the Australian films of the 1970s famously found menace and alienation in the landscape, these new films flip the script, locating discordance within the family home. “I’m interested in the landscape as an agoraphobic’s nightmare,” says Daina Reid. Reid is the director of Run Rabbit Run, which topped the US Netflix charts last month. Starring Sarah Snook, it’s about a woman whose mind is fraying in the face of her small daughter’s insistence that she is not, in fact, her daughter. Run Rabbit Run was preceded in 2020 by Relic, directed by Natalie Erika James, a multi-generational drama about the horror of dementia. (James is currently in post production on her second feature, a prequel to Rosemary’s Baby.)

“We used to think of Australian films as something that had an exotic element to them,” says Nobile Jr. “You’re filming outdoors, you’re filming in landscapes.” Films such as Razorback and Wake in Fright. “And this new wave of Aussie horror, if we’re going to call it a wave, is very much about going inward. And in that regard, it’s much more universal.”

In high school, Hannah Kent, author of novels such as Burial Rites and The Good People, was the kid who hid behind a couch while everybody else watched Scream. Horror was never the novelist’s thing, and when she started writing Run Rabbit Run, her first screenplay, she envisaged it more as a psychological drama. Kent was fascinated by the real-life phenomenon of children who claim to remember past lives. She wrote early drafts of the script when she was pregnant with her first child, crafting a story about a young mother worried that she’ll pass on inherited trauma. Kent began to feel like horror might be a good way to address the taboo – in this case, the way society judges mothers.

Kent’s awakening to the possibilities of the genre has been gradual, she tells me, but she’s always been interested in folk horror. She namechecks The Witch and Ari Aster’s 2019 pastoral Midsommar. She’s particularly fascinated by films that interrogate gender roles, and surveying the home front is something she’s been doing for years.

“I like exploring the domestic space,” she says. “I like giving it space.” She points out that much of her fiction is set in the domestic sphere of the 19th century. “It’s not these grand narratives occurring out on the battlefield. These are small, intense spaces, but the lives being lived within them are nonetheless important.” And the domestic front provides the perfect setting to examine them, to burrow in. “You can really drill down into the comfort of a domestic space, the familiar, or you can push it in the other direction – which I tend to do in my novels – which is, this is a place, inevitably, of claustrophobia. This is a place of limitation. This is a place of suffocation.”

That duality recalls Freud’s conception of the uncanny, or heimlich, meaning familiar or belonging to the home but also concealed, hidden out of sight, secret. Freud attributed that seeming paradox to repression (of course). Specifically, the repression of trauma. He argued that the uncanny feeling is produced when long-hidden trauma irrupts into the open. He also associated the uncanny with our primitive fears of the dead returning, and he noted that human doubles, in particular, tend to unmoor us. After all, if the uncanny is about one’s home made unfamiliar, even threatening, what could be more unsettling than the othering of one’s own body?

The recurrence of doubles in many of these films is remarkable. In Talk to Me (in cinemas this month), which screened at Sundance alongside Run Rabbit Run in January, doubling is combined with the spectre of the returning dead. Directed by another set of brothers, Danny and Michael Philippou, Talk to Me tells the story of a girl traumatised by the loss of her mother to apparent suicide. Drifting and grief-stricken, she volunteers to try the latest dangerous craze, a possessed hand going around her group of friends like a party drug, because why not. She discovers that she can communicate with her dead mother through the hand. And she wants more, with disastrous consequences.

The Philippous worked with Jennifer Kent on The Babadook; Michael was a runner, and Danny helped out in the lighting department. They’re big fans, and Talk to Me represents another in the lineage of films about trauma that followed Kent’s debut, with which it shares a desaturated suburban aesthetic. But Talk to Me is also gnarly and violent rather than strictly psychological, and it updates Freud’s conception of the uncanny with a very modern twist, essaying the unease we all feel about the internet.

Like Monolith, it’s partly about the dangers of chasing virality. High-schoolers film each other taking turns with the possessed hand. They post the videos online. If somebody’s behaviour is embarrassing, all the better. “There’s a craving for attention now,” says Michael. “There’s this attention-seeking culture, where you do the more controversial stuff to get attention.” The brothers were interested in exploring the poisonous aspects of that culture, and they certainly know of which they speak, having made their names on YouTube. Their immersion in online culture is part of what gives the film its sense of specificity. “That’s how we were kind of raised,” says Danny. “So, it’s a world that we understand. Maybe some films don’t fully capture what it is.”

Bolstering the film’s sense of authenticity is their decision to shoot in the suburbs of Adelaide, their home town. That was “a big discussion” during financing, the film’s producer, Sam Jennings, tells me. Some prospective backers wanted Talk to Me to be set in America, but the filmmakers were determined to show the “contemporary, urban and suburban Australia that we know,” says Jennings. “So, not a kind of preconceived ocker Australiana.” They hoped that capturing how young people live now in a real way would make it feel international, and the directors’ refusal to transplant their story to the US feels right for a film that is highly personal, right down to the gore.

Written by Danny with Bill Hinzman, the script was partly inspired by a car accident. Danny cut his hand open and he thought he might have broken his spine. Lying in hospital, he remembers shaking uncontrollably, freezing, though he was covered with blankets. Then his sister came in and held his hand. He began warming up, his shock subsiding as “the touch of someone I loved pulled me out of it”.

Touch became a motif. The hand is just another narcotic through which somebody damaged might seek to escape their trauma. It’s not human. Unlike a sister, it doesn’t care about you. Sometimes, nor do your friends. The brothers had been appalled by a viral video of their younger neighbour in the middle of a very bad trip, convulsing on the floor while his companions filmed him on their phones, laughing. And the hand in Talk to Me acts as a metaphor for the wrong kind of connection, divorced from humanity in every sense.

If Aussie horror films are having a moment, it’s likely to be a lasting one. There’s now an established pathway for the next generation of Australian filmmakers. Market forces are guiding them towards genre. Horror allows them to get their films made, and without stars. But they might also feel that horror films are showing us the true face of the country, right now. Relic and Run Rabbit Run are among the rare Australian films to foreground middle-class characters. Talk to Me documents the contemporary, city-dwelling nation. But international demand for these films has sometimes outpaced interest at home.

Run Rabbit Run was made by Carver Films, run by Melbourne-based producers Anna McLeish and Sarah Shaw. The duo began their feature careers with 2011’s Snowtown, which is about as disturbing as any Australian film ever and shares with their more recent films, such as Relic, an interest in domestic disturbance – the horror that goes unseen within the four walls of a house. But they were careful, when they were putting it together, not to characterise it as a horror film, lest it be seen as insensitive.

One of the hurdles her company has faced, McLeish tells me, is that films such as Snowtown might go to festivals, win awards and launch careers, but they still have trouble finding commercial success (read: audiences) overseas. According to Shaw, “the genre framework”, on the other hand, helps films travel – they’re categorisable to buyers and their audiences in every territory. And that familiarity helps when it comes to financing films, not just with selling them. In recent years, Carver has worked increasingly with US financing partners, and “there’s no doubt,” McLeish says, “that those genre elements absolutely help. In fact, the ironic thing, I think, is that they help more with the US and offshore conversations than they do in Australia.”

Distributors here have been leery, McLeish says, because Australia doesn’t have a strong commercial history of independently produced horror, and we’ve got a subsidised model here that’s very different to America’s commercial one. Taxpayers’ money is at stake, and films that are considered quote-unquote culturally important have always been prioritised by the funding bodies.

Though Carver has moved more towards genre in recent years, the company that best represents the trend is Sydney’s Causeway Films, run by Sam Jennings and Kristina Ceyton. Talk to Me was produced by Causeway, and The Babadook was the company’s first film. They never expected to be making horror films, but that film’s success made leaning into the genre feel natural.

“It’s not something we’ve cynically gone after,” says Jennings, speaking to me from the New Zealand set of Went Up the Hill, a ghost story about grief from young director Samuel Van Grinsven. They’re just looking for great stories, she tells me, and genre grants filmmakers the “freedom to have a level of allegory and social critique that isn’t didactic or earnest”. To be expressive and bold and traffic in ambiguity.

Jennings and Ceyton were recently named two of the most influential women in international film by The Hollywood Reporter. But, as Ceyton admits, their films to date haven’t been very successful in Australia. Festivals might help in getting the word out, but, unlike a studio, they can’t put millions into an advertising campaign. Says Jennings, “I think it’s been a little more challenging [here] because of the dominance of a mature audience in cinemas.” Industry wisdom is that younger audiences don’t go to the cinema to see Australian films, she says, and horror often appeals to a younger audience.

The producers are hoping that Talk to Me will change that perception, aided by the filmmakers’ online fanbase. It was snapped up by A24 at Sundance, and the Philippous even got to meet one of their heroes, Ari Aster. The film’s local release will provide a litmus test for Australian horror in Australian cinemas.

Whatever Talk to Me’s commercial fate, Colin and Cameron Cairnes are hoping that its acclaim will encourage the local industry to support horror. According to the Monolith screenwriter Lucy Campbell, that’s already happening. “Even five years ago,” she says, “if you went and pitched a horror to Screen Australia or to any of the funding bodies, they were just not interested. But now they’re actively looking for genre.” Daina Reid directed Run Rabbit Run after a long stint directing series like The Handmaid’s Tale in the US. Reid has always loved genre, she says, and it’s that love that drove her to work overseas. She remembers pitching a genre show to the ABC, and “you could see their faces dropping”. But these days they’re willing to talk.

Then again, Reid doesn’t even think of Run Rabbit Run as a horror film: “It’s a psychological thriller with horror elements”. The straight drama has become an increasingly tough sell in cinemas in the streaming age. A dirty word, say producers. So, it makes sense that filmmakers are Trojan-horsing stories they want to tell into films “with horror elements” or that are “horror-adjacent”. It makes sense, but it also adds to a feeling – an uncanny feeling, even – that drama is being displaced by horror altogether.

According to Anna McLeish, it’s not that simple. “I think there’s more to it than just the distinction of horror, or genre, and drama,” she says. “I actually think what’s happening – and what we find exciting – is that there’s the opportunity, creatively, to merge those things.” That twinning could be called something else, something that’s everywhere on our screens this year: possession.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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