The Babadook, 2014’s surprising horror breakout from Australian director Jennifer Kent, wasn’t a fluke. Australia’s long had a brand of horror uniquely its own, producing masterworks of the violent, the surreal, and the just-plain-insane, with movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wolf Creek, Wake in Fright, Patrick, The Last Wave, The Snowtown Murders, and Wyrmwood trafficking in exuberant brutality and psychological terror — oftentimes with a sick sense of humor.
But this year in particular has seen an influx of young Australian horror filmmakers, all making waves internationally by producing some of the genre’s scariest stuff (and getting it Stateside thanks to streaming services and the rising stock of the horror economy). Some are taking the blistering indie route; some have migrated to the American studio system to weave the cinematic DNA of their homeland into movies produced outside the state-run Australian film market. But each of them is bringing their specific, terrifying take on classic Aussie themes and character types to global audiences.
Why are Australians, in particular, so good at wrecking our sleep cycles? As Greg McLean, one of the country’s foremost contemporary horror auteurs and the mind behind The Belko Experiment and Wolf Creek explains it, Australia’s outlaw origin story lends itself particularly well to tales of terror. “If you talk about the subconscious of a country, and the making of that place, Australia was basically the dumping ground for the scum of England, except for the people who were originally there, the aboriginal people,” said McLean. “Australia has that inherent conflict in it as a place. It is basically a huge kind of untamed world, and it has this overlay of society that has tried to control it. A lot of [Australian cinema] unconsciously or consciously reflects that kind of layer of civilization that has chaos bursting through with devastating results, basically.”
In the interest of chasing that chaos and devastation, we reached out to four on-the-rise men and women all the way at the bottom of the world who can’t wait to start scaring the shit out of you. We asked them about their new films, why Australian horror is so insanely brutal, and why it does better abroad than Down Under.
Sean Byrne, The Devil’s Candy
The Devil’s Candy, Byrne’s second feature, after 2009’s The Loved Ones, introduces us to a working-class family — a hairdresser mom, a metalhead artist dad, and a sweet but sassy teen girl — just as they’re about to buy their dream home. The problem is, the too-good-to-be-true ranch house is on sale for such a low, low price because Satan lives in the walls and whispers to the inhabitants. For Candy, Byrne plays to one of his greatest strengths: writing gripping villains. It’s something of a tradition in Australian horror — Australian madmen wildly, gleefully untethered from society, made physically repulsive thanks to their undying commitment to violence.
Australia has an incredible tradition of these hysterical madmen and vicious villains. Where does that come from?
I think there’s a wild colonial streak to Australians, going right back to the outlaw Ned Kelly, and a danger with our genre filmmaking, even with stunts. It goes back to the whole Ozploitation period of Australian genre: You had The Man From Hong Kong and Patrick and Mad Max, and all these films that were quite dangerous to make — and they’d feel dangerous to watch. There’s definitely a wildness of spirit to Australian genre films. I think a large part of that is the isolation. We’re a very excluded country, and wide-open spaces and isolation do tend to play on the mind and drive people toward madness. That leads to a maniacal kind of quality, along with the fact that I think there’s a view of Australia as — whether it’s a cliche or not — a kind of dangerous land with killer snakes and deadly spiders and fast cars. There is a kind of an unhinged aspect to the country, at least through the eyes of the rest of the world.
Do you feel like you make movies that are meant to be exported?
Australian genre has always traveled internationally far better than it has ever done at home. It’s a strange thing. There’s more respect abroad than there is actually in Australia. Wolf Creek did well theatrically in Australia, but that’s basically a true crime film as well. It’s based on the Ivan Milat backpacking murders, and Australians have a real affinity for true crime; horror traditionally doesn’t do very well in Australia. I think that fuels the rebellious spirit, and the feeling that there’s nothing left to lose, or that you can take greater risks and be a little bit more subversive than [you can] with a lot of Hollywood horror. Especially mainstream Hollywood horror — you have to play by the rules. In Australia, we’re outside that system, but I do want my work to be seen by as many people as possible.
Australian films are funded through a government agency called Screen Australia. How does operating outside of a private studio system change the film?
Sixty percent of the budgets come from the government. There’s a cultural imperative. You can’t just make a bottom-line horror film that is just specifically about the commercial realities. It has to be [about] something wider. That’s how you end up with a Berlin Syndrome, which is really a comment on the current domestic violence issues, which are really spiraling out of control. Then you get Damien Power’s Killing Ground, which takes a very conventional setup, but then has this beautiful cutting framework. We actually can’t get the money in Australia without thinking of another angle to attack the form. I think that ends up elevating the films.
That’s why it’s disappointing that local audiences don’t really turn up for Australian horror. Everyone’s busting their ass trying to do something different. It’s like, no one saw The Babadook in Australia. I think it got onto two screens. Then internationally, it was a great. It’s got a great lineage that goes back to The Exorcist, where it really is about motherhood and failures and fears to protect your children, as opposed to just really being a supernatural film. I think that goes for most horror. There always has to be a very human, thematic thread to build everything else upon for something to have emotional relevance and resonance.
Why did you opt to make Devil’s Candy through an American studio? Was it because of The Loved Ones’ success?
The Loved Ones, even though it had a great critical response, no one saw it in Australia. It’s kind of like falling off a bike and breaking your knee caps and your arms. If I’m gonna get back on the bike, I want to make sure [I won’t fall]. When you make a film, there’s a high chance of failure, but I wanted to go to a place that was sort of more receptive for genre. Hollywood trades in genre, so it just seemed like a more sensible move.
There seems to be a slight destigmatization happening with horror — filmmakers are returning to the genre, and it’s being judged again more on its merits than on a curve of low-brow cinema.
There is no more fertile ground for drama than horror. I mean, you’re literally dealing with characters who are in between moments of life and death. All those great horror [films] — The Exorcist and The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining — they had real pedigree and just superb characterization, which meant you really cared about these characters that were in peril. And somewhere along the way, in the ’80s, and maybe the video nasties era, some of that got a little bit lost, and I think there was kind of an executive mentality: If we have breasts and blood, that’s enough to sell. Suddenly the genre lost its way, and became a Friday-night pizza-and-beer kind of genre.
One of the great things that’s happened to horror recently is the bottom falling out of the mid-budget-range film. It’s meant that most horror films are $5 million and under, and when you’re at that level of budget, you can genuinely take chances and push the envelope without fear of the film turning into a financial disaster. As soon as you’ve got that kind of creative liberty, that’s when you end up with films like Get Out. So in a way, the shackles are being broken, and I think that’s incredibly exciting for horror, because horror by definition has to be dangerous and rooted in rebellion. It has to take the viewer right up to the edge or it’s not really horror.
Cate Shortland, Berlin Syndrome
Up until Berlin Syndrome, Cate Shortland had focused her feature-film work on straightforward dramas about young women thrown from the lives they know, embarking on paths of self-discovery. It’s a softer touch than that of many Australian thrillers, but exploring the power dynamics between men and women through female-fronted films is central to Shortland’s filmography. In Berlin Syndrome, Teresa Palmer’s Clare becomes the prisoner of a handsome man, Andi, with whom she has a one-night stand. To survive as his domestic captive, she must find the impossible middle ground between fighting back and submitting to his desires.
Can you point to any of the cultural elements that influenced your vision for Berlin Syndrome?
I think the first thing is: I didn’t set out to make a horror movie or a thriller. I was just trying to be truthful to the fear. In some ways, in Australia, we live in a hypermasculine culture. I think it’s always been [that way] since settlement, but that also makes the women quite tough. There’s a lot of fear in our history, actually in the soil. That’s always influenced my work, which is often about power, and I’ve been aware of it. I was brought up by a truck driver — I’ve always been around these guys that really take their roles seriously. I’ve always had to fight for mine, and I’m always interested in that in my work in terms of the female characters — this idea that you have to fight for your autonomy.
I’ve never really considered the overtness of the masculinity in Australian genre, but that makes a lot of sense, especially with some of these iconic Aussie madmen villains in films like Mad Max, Wake in Fright, and Razorback.
Yeah. That’s right, exactly. It comes from our convict history. I’m sure of it. There’s this criminality to the male characters that’s accepted, and there’s adoration around that. There’s this idea that ultra-violence is part of the male character. I think it’s also really gothic, and that’s what influenced me more than other films. I’m around really great men and really great women, but in our culture, in our literature, in our films, [masculine violence] it is just a part of who we are.
The villain of Berlin Syndrome, Andi, does seem rooted in that toxic masculinity and aggression, and the heroine, Clare, has to subvert that power dynamic by manipulating with her femininity just to make it through every day.
To me that’s about control. There’s something beautiful and magical and instinctual about us. That terrifies men, because they want to control it. I think Clare’s a fighter, and I think her passivity comes through survival. She’s choosing ways to survive him, even if she doesn’t realize it in a conscious mind. She’ll choose violence or she’ll choose surrender. She’s always grasping at one outcome, which is to live. I think she mirrors a lot of women in very normalized relationships actually, except those women are not being entrapped by walls. They’re more entrapped by the social and political boundaries around them.
Women and people of color can be horribly exploited by horror, but they can also be empowered in a visceral way that other types of movies can’t make room for. Systemic, real-world problems are explored in an extreme way — but that intensity actually mirrors the severity of everyday issues like racism and dangerous misogyny.
That’s right. Also, it’s really great exploring it, because you can explore this kind of righteous anger, which is really great! You can go, “Fuck it, I’m angry and I’m going to do something about it!” We have to be all smiles. Women [face] this in the workplace. Women [face] this in public life, with the way a man undresses you with his eyes. You can’t scream at him! [Laughs] There’s liberation in these types of stories where people can act out. Women can be bad. They can say what they want. That is liberating.
It’s also really important to think [about the fact that] most of these films are being made by white, middle-class filmmakers. It’s easy to say, “It’s the working poor.” That violence permeates the middle classes, the wealthy, and the poor in Australia. It’s definitely not spoken about as much, but we have our fair share of boys — larrikins, as they like to call them — from a very posh background committing horrendous crimes against women.
Yes, violence at the hands of the privileged — which can be defined in many ways — is a huge conversation in the U.S. right now, too.
It’s just the idea of who’s the most masculine. It’s actually really great that there’s a dialogue around it now, because I feel like men are just as trapped in it as we are. They don’t get the brunt of the physical violence that women suffer, but I think we all want to escape it. We just want to get rid of it and talk about it honestly.
Killing Ground, Power’s first feature, tells two overlapping stories: One about a family on a camping vacation, and the other about a couple who lays a plot down next to them. The narratives unfold in a non-linear fashion, but as timelines converge, the couple realizes their neighbors by the lake fled their site in haste, and that something truly terrible happened to them deep in the forest. With its isolated location and Deliverance-style hill people, Killing Ground features one of the essential conflicts in Australian genre film: the friction between urban and rural, the developed rim of the country at odds with its wild interior.
I appreciated that, in Killing Ground, not everyone acts nobly. There’s a very likable character that just flees when his fiancée is in danger. What was the reasoning for that?
I think a lot of the film is about my fears for my own children. Would I be able to protect them if we were under threat? And the answer is, I don’t know. Movies tell us all the time that we can be heroes, but I think the reality is often different, so I wanted to invest the film with the feeling of powerlessness to protect my own kids out in the world.
As an outsider, it feels like crime-based thrillers from Australia have a powerful feeling of realism. Aussie filmmakers do a really good job of blurring the line between fiction and fantasy, and it makes so many of these suspenseful stories feel like they could be true.
Yeah, that’s right. I think filmmakers here are inspired by a real darkness in the place, be it true stories or fiction. I feel that [Killing Ground] fits into a whole long tradition of Australian cinema about white Australians’ unease in the landscape. And that goes all the way back to Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max, and, even more recently, Wolf Creek. Wake in Fright is another great example of that.
Yes! I’ve often noticed that unease in Australian genre films, and it seems to extend to the tension between the culture of the first people in the country and the white people who came after.
One of the things that I was trying to talk about with the film was this idea of cycles of violence. There’s a reference in the story of a past massacre of indigenous people at this location, and I wanted to invest the place with this sense of violence, how a place can hold the memory of events. With the nonlinear structure, I wanted to create this sense of timelessness that this violence could be happening 200 years ago or could be happening a week ago, happening today, and it’s probably going to happen tomorrow.
What is it that draws you toward horror, toward such a specifically visceral film experience?
A lot of drama has migrated to the TV space — and that’s fine, we’re kind of spoiled — but there’s [still] an audience for these films in the cinema, which is great. As a filmmaker working on a low budget, how do you compete with blockbusters, with the spectacle? One way is to give people a visceral experience, make them feel something, and I think that’s what these films do. Then you’ve got to look at the success of Get Out. In these films, you can speak out about the real world in interesting ways that are not necessarily front and center [plot-wise]. People can watch these films and go on an amazing thrill ride, but [the films] pose questions for people to think about afterward. With Killing Ground, you can come out of that film and talk about violence and courage and what those things mean.
Ben Young, Hounds of Love
Hounds of Love, Young’s first feature, centers on a high-school girl who gets lured into the home of a couple who systematically kidnap, torture, rape, and kill teen girls. It’s an excruciating drama that keeps the sexual violence mercifully out of the frame, but stays harrowing throughout, as the victim tries to pit her captors against one another in hopes of breaking free. The film is part of the contemporary Australian suspense tradition, exploring suburban disaffection and true crime. In a twist on the Aussie madman, Young wrote a phenomenal madwoman, who is both complicit in the sex crimes orchestrated by her boyfriend and a victim of his abuse and manipulation.
Sean Byrne mentioned to me that Australians love true crime stories. Is that something you grew up liking? Is that a big part of the cultural vernacular for you guys?
Yeah. I think that a part of it is Australia doesn’t have a very big population. Where I live, there’s only 2 million people, and there are so many true crimes. Nearly every significant true crime that happens in the country, you know someone who knows someone who’s got a connection to it. It feels so close to us, and so, in that way, it makes it so much scarier and so much more personal and relatable.
This is a story rooted in sexual violence against a teenage girl, but I thought you did a really great job of maximizing the horror without exploiting the visuals. You kept the worst of the brutality offscreen.
I didn’t want to make a film about the acts they committed. I wanted to make a film about the people involved in the acts. I knew that the minute I showed too much, that’s all that everybody would remember, and that’s all everybody would speak about. So to stay true to what I was trying to do, I wanted to see how the people dealt with those acts, rather than what it was like committing them. Because we all know what went on behind the door — when it closes, you hear that scream. There’s no point in showing it. I knew had I shown that, it would’ve been so disgusting and so difficult to stomach that whatever came next, you wouldn’t notice, because you’d still be processing this foul thing that I’d shown.
As a filmmaker outside the big Hollywood market, how have streaming platforms opened things up for you?
What’s fantastic about all these streaming platforms is that there’s more of a demand for content. Just the simple fact that there’s more demand means that there’s gonna be more variety. I think that there’s gonna be room for more independent filmmakers to be telling more intimate stories that aren’t effects-driven, and are about more personal things.
You are working on a studio-financed picture now, the science-fiction thriller Extinction. How has that been different?
I’m in production now. We’re shooting, and it’s very different, and I love it. But I am going to go back to doing an Australian movie. When I made Hounds of Love, it was 100 percent mine. The people I’m working with are all really, really lovely, but you’re very aware that it’s not your film. On Hounds of Love, I never had that question, but there’s more of that kind of thing going on. Australian movies are financed by our government, so the principal objective is not money. The principal objective is the art form. That’s a big element. Way [fewer] people will see it, but it will be way more of me on the screen. The system of Australia does suit me.