Introduction to Australian Research in Horror Cinema Studies

Introduction to Australian Research in Horror Cinema Studies
© Photograph by David Nemesszeghy

Until quite recently, with the exception of aficionados, most Australian cinema-goers would have been hard-pressed to name a handful of Australian horror films. While ‘Razorback’ (1984), ‘Body Melt’ (1993) or ‘Patrick’ (1978), may have come to mind, horror films are rarely associated with Australian cinema.

Over the last three and a half decades, Australian cinema has been best known for uniquely Australian “ocker” comedies and quirky offbeat dramas characterised by distinct representations of Australian culture, society and national identity. However, worlds apart from ‘Crocodile Dundee’ (1986), ‘The Man from Snowy River’ (1982), ‘The Adventures of Pricilla Queen of the Desert’ (1994) and ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992), Australian horror films have lurked among the shadows of Australian cinema.

Hereafter, to account for historical titles increasingly discussed by other authors as “Australian horror films” and to capture hybrid “horror” titles in the 1970s and 1980s (discussed below along with a definition of contemporary horror films), this study uses a broad definition, including horror films but also horror-related films — dark thrillers, suspenseful eerie films and genre films displaying tinges of the horror genre.

By the early 1990s, the Australian horror film, in the words of one international commentator, was “a curious beast” (Eofftv.com 2006: 1). On the one hand, Australian horror films have origins in the silent era of film (Hood 1994), and since the 1970s industry, renaissance Australian horror films have always occupied a niche in Australian cinema.

By 1994, Australian horror and horror-related films had been estimated as a filmmaking tradition producing a total of 80 films (Hood 1994: 1). Building upon these findings, this study identifies a total of 70 new Australian horror productions released from 1993 to 2007 not captured in previous surveys. To set the record straight, from the silent era of film to present, Australian cinema has produced a horror tradition of over 150 films.

Films such as ‘Dead Calm’ (1989), ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (1975), ‘The Last Wave’ (1977), and ‘The Cars That Ate Paris’ (1974) — the first three films increasingly understood as horror-related films although ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, in particular, is celebrated by many as a “quality” art-house film — have all achieved varying levels of national and international commercial and critical success.

In the words of Hood (1994: 1), they are “among the most well-regarded and influential films produced in the country”. However, production has tended to be “isolated with little specific on-going influence” (Hood 1994: 1).

Without studios or production companies specialising in the genre — like RKO and Universal in the United States (1940s); Hammer in Britain (1950s and 1960s) and more recently the United States mini-studio Lion’s Gate (1997 to present) — Australian horror production has been small in scale and driven primarily by independent producers who, according to Hood, “manage to dabble in horror from time to time” (1994: 10).

With limited production scale, “a ‘brand’ […] or a particular sub-genre that one might identify as particularly Australian” failed to emerge within the marketplace (Eofftv.com 2006: 1). Since the 1970s, the majority of Australian horror films, although sometimes receiving respectable commercial returns, have operated on the edges of mainstream Australian cinema.

However, after experimental beginnings in the 1970s, a commercial push in the 1980s and an underground existence in the 1990s, in the early twenty-first century contemporary Australian horror production has experienced a period of strong growth and relative commercial success.

‘Wolf Creek’ (2005), the Australian “runaway” horror film ‘Saw’ (2004), ‘Rogue’ (2007), ‘Dying Breed’ (2008), ‘Undead’ (2003), and ‘Storm Warning’ (2006), have experienced varying degrees of popularity, mainstream visibility, cult success, and commercial returns in national and international markets.

As one commentator puts it, Australian filmmakers are “making a killing out of horror; the horror genre is booming, and a spate of local filmmakers are hoping to cash in on the phenomenon” (Shore 2007).

The terms “boom”, “the revival” and “riding a crest of a wave” (Shore 2007; Hopkins 2007; Appleyard 2007) are being used in the media and industry literature to describe Australian horror production’s resurgence — even though, as Gibson (2007) remarks, until recently, “most of us didn’t even know we [Australia] made horror films”.

Like the undead from beyond the grave, Australian horror films are on the rise. However, with little to no previous research into production dynamics and the nature of the Australian horror tradition more broadly, there is a limited understanding of the “industry” of Australian horror production and the thematic and stylistic characteristics of local horror films.

This study explores the rise of contemporary Australian horror production: emerging production and distribution models; the films produced; and the industrial, market and technological forces driving production. It constitutes the most in-depth historical analysis to date of the Australian horror tradition, and is the first significant exploration of the industry of contemporary horror production.

This study, consequently, is also a project of substantial empirical data exploring budget ranges and expenditure, productivity by decade, release patterns and many other issues. Three key themes underpin this research: economic, cultural and developmental value.

First, this study attempts to understand the commercial dynamics and profitability of Australian horror films, including economic models, markets and returns, the impact of international market cycles upon domestic production, and key production companies.

Second, the study examines the cultural specificity of Australian horror films and how this impacts upon an individual title’s reception. It considers questions of Australian content, the stigma of the horror genre within Australian cinema and domestic criticism, and the tensions that arise for cultural policy.

Despite commonly held views within the Australian film industry, this study suggests culture retains a place within a commercial, genre-based and internationally oriented and integrated production sector.

Third, this study examines developmental issues, in terms of forces affecting horror production’s development — including internationalisation’s impact on talent flows across national boundaries and talent drain — but also the developmental function of horror films for the broader industry.

Although horror films cause tensions for cultural policy, they also play a role as a training ground for filmmakers, and are a growth strategy for independent producers. In so doing, this project considers cinema studies, Australian cinema studies and the practice of cultural policy in light of these issues.

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