Australia may not have an overabundance of horror films but they’ve managed to produce some quality genre pictures. The recent success of the acclaimed documentary Not Quite Hollywood has shed light on a much overlooked aspect of Aussie genre filmmaking, from lowbrow slashers to twisted thrillers and gross-out horror comedies. Back in the 70’s a number of prominent filmmakers began to develop a film movement that would eventually see the successes of such films as Mad Max and The Last Wave. It was during this time that Australian cinema as a whole experienced resurgence due to increased governmental funding and eventually gave way to what international film critics termed the “Australian New Wave” or the “Golden Age of Australian cinema”.
New Zealand hasn’t produced many horror films over the years, but those it has given birth to are remarkably strong entries. In fact one of the biggest filmmakers working today began his career making low-budget horror flicks in New Zealand. Dubbed “the enfant terrible” of the New Zealand film industry, Peter Jackson helped shine a light on the countries genre offerings. However there still isn’t enough movies that I know of to justify creating a separate list, so I’ve just jumbled them together with the Australian flicks.
Also note: Although I have noticed the following films on other people’s lists, I am leaving out Cars That Ate Paris, Dead End Drive-In, Turkey Shoot, Meet The Feebles, Heavenly Creatures, Wake In Fright and Dead Calm since I don’t consider them horror films.
19- Undead (2005)
Directed by Michael and Peter Sperig
For such a modestly budgeted film, writers/directors and brothers, Michael and Peter Sperig do wonders with this DIY indie horror/comedy. While it’s visual effects are nowhere near as polished as a studio-backed film, it manages to still look great while delivering a combo of gore, Robert Rodiguez-style action and a ton of laughs. The influence of Peter Jackson’s early splatter horror comedies is more than evident but Undead is a ton of fun, blending sci-fi and horror, aliens and zombies – all for the price of one.
18- Bad Taste (1989)
Directed by Pter Jackson
Like many films found on this list, Bad Taste will work best when watched with a group of friends, and a copious amount of alcohol. This homemade gore-fest put the later Lord Of The Rings director on the map. Despite the minicule budget, Jackson’s creative genius is quite apparent as he writes, directs, stars, produces, and designs the makeup.
17- Black Water (2008)
Directed by Andrew Traucki and David Nerlich
There has been plenty of films about giant killer crocs or gators, but Black Water ranks as the best – 89 minutes of pure suspense. The filmmakers ratchet up the tension, while sustaining our interest in the fate of the characters, with the help of a talented young cast. While creature features have been a staple of direct-to-retail movies for decades, Black Water takes it a step further, showing class and intelligence.
16- Thirst (1979)
Directed by Rod Hardy
Thirst didn’t quite make my cut of the best vampires films ever made, but luckily the competition isn’t so stiff here. Thirst is perhaps the quirkiest horror film on this list, but it is also one of the more interesting and unusual variants on the vampire mythology. The tagline reads, “The ancient evil of vampirism is now a modern industry.” In an attempt to place vampirism into the scientific arena, crazed scientists use humans as ‘blood cattle’ herding thier victims through a farming complex into pens by anonymous loud-speakers, and eventually hooked up to automatic blood pumping machines. I’m not making this up. We learn of this when we follow a group of foreign dignitaries who visit the plant. A tour guide who escorts them explains how the plant was set up to avoid various blood diseases like hepetatius B.
The film is best described as one long dream sequence with nods to David Cronenberg, Rosemary’s Baby and perhaps even Solyent Green. Thirst features some superb in-camera visual effects, a spectacular tilting room sequence, and death by falling from a helicopter – onto power-lines.
15- Daybreakers (2010)
Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
When I first watched Daybreakers, I wasn’t the biggest fan due to a bad ending. However upon a second viewing, I really do think the film deserves some praise. Daybreakers contains plenty of interesting and original ideas about the sociological implications of a vampire world. The Spierig Brothers follow up their brilliant directorial debut The Undead with a wildly entertaining, deliciously gory, action packed thrill ride. The production values of Daybreakers are superb and the effects are gruesome, but more importantly, the directing duo still manage to find time to squeeze in an underlying social message, using the vampire as a metaphor for an increasingly “bloodthirsty” bourgeois society.
14- Wolf Creek (2005)
Directed by Greg McLean
Despite the obvious influence of The Hills Have Eyes, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Greg McLean, who had only worked on shorts and commercials prior, delivers a solid directorial debut with Wolf Creek.Wolf Creek is effective, thoroughly tense and stylish without being obtrusive.The even pacing and attention to character detail – and more importantly characters we get to know and care about, is what makes that harrowing second half so bloody effective. Wolf Creek was made with the intention to scare moviegoers, and it surely succeeds.
13- Razorback (1984)
Directed by Russell Mulcahy
Russell Mulcahy went onto become a major genre director with Highlander in 1986, launching a long-running franchise. However three years earlier, Mulchahy and script writer Everett De Roche set out to make their version of Jaws, only replacing the ocean with the outback, and the shark with a giant killer pig.
Razorback falls in the middle ground as far as “Man versus Nature” films go, and although the plot may be a bit familiar, it successfully generates just as many laughs as terror. Mulcahy transforms the desolate outback locations into an eerie shadow-land of surreal imagery, and like Spielberg makes the wise decision to keep his creature off screen for the majority of the movie. Cameraman Dean Semler`s (Mad Max 2) cinematography is exceptional with plenty of odd angles and odd imagery, and the effects are top notch for it’s time.
Razorback combines elements of Jaws and Deliverance in a fairy tale setting that is dripped in blood and guts and accompanied with an electronic score and the popular tunes of such artists as INXS and Duran Duran. You’ve never seen anything quite like it before.
12- Patrick (1978)
Directed by Richard Franklin
Patrick was not only a pivotal film and a commercial success but it was nominated in three categories, including Best Film, at the 1978 AFI Awards and director Richard Franklin took home the Best Director prize at the prestigious Sitges Fantasy Film Festival in Spain.
Patrick is a truly original screenplay where it’s villain remains in a comatose for the entire film. Everett De Roche’s script is surprisingly vivid and punchy; developing its characters well beyond your usual fright-flick archetypes and Richard Franklin’s direction is elegant and suspenseful, relying on mood and atmosphere rather than blood and gore.
The strong cast includes some of Australia’s finest actors, from Julia Blake as the mastiff of a matron to Robert Helpmann as the dangerous doctor. As the titular character, Thompson is utterly mesmerizing on screen despite the fact that he doesn’t utter a single word and Susan Penhaligon who plays the feisty nurse pulls off a rather difficult act of looking convincing while having a conversation with a man in a coma.
11- Black Sheep (2006)
Directed by Jonathan King
Although it’s stronger on over-the-top laughs and gore effects, Black Sheep is what many film critics like to label, “shear terror”. If there is one zombie-sheep movie you will see in your lifetime, make it Black Sheep – a refreshingly fun take on the oversaturaed genre. Beautifully shot, well acted, fast moving and innovative with the kills, Black Sheep has an abundance of enthusiastic energy that’s tough to not take a liking to. Fans of An American Werewolf in London, Shaun Of The Dead, and early movies by Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, will love this film.
10- Roadgames (1981)
Directed by Richard Franklin
Director Richard Franklin has openly confessed that his Roadgames is an “Alfred Hitchcock derivative, replacing Jimmy Stewart’s apartment view in Rear Window with the open highway windscreen view of an 8-wheel truck transporting the city block into the Australian Outback”. The casting of Jamie Lee Curtis (whose mother Janet Leigh starred in Psycho) was also a fundamental point establishing the connection between Roadgames and Franklin’s chief cinematic influence, Hitchcock. At the same time, Roadgames could also be viewed as Spielberg’s Duel reversing the roles of the protagonist and antagonists. Like Spielberg, Franklin keeps the villain offscreen and does a superb job in maintaining a constant sense of genuine tension, ambiguity and dread throughout. Also worth noting is Stacy Keach, who gives an entertainingly oddball performance, and whose many idiosyncrasies include playing the harmonica, quoting poetry, accompanying classical music on the radio and constantly talking to himself and his pet dingo. Roadgames is a deeply unsettling and at times very funny thriller that happens to feature two of the most eccentric chase sequences ever filmed. Some would argue that it isn’t a horror film, but I’ve decided to include it on the list regardless.
9- Saw (2004)
Directed by James Wan
I assume everyone by now is familiar with Saw. The indie horror film, shot in less the three weeks for a miniscule budget was a huge box office success and introduced a new icon in Jigsaw, to the world of horror. Many like to classify Saw as torture porn, but I can guarantee I will not be making a list for that sub-genre since I am not a fan. However writer Luke Y. Thompson of OC Weekly argued that unlike Hostel, the Saw films actually have less torture than most in the sense of sadism or masochism, as Jigsaw believes that those who survive his methods, will be stronger people for it. He called him a kind of a (deranged) philanthropist. Saw is twisted, constantly surprising, extraordinarily tense and features one of the best endings of any horror film to date.
8- The Long Weekend (1978)
Directed by Colin Eggleston
A very well executed and innovative film for the time, TheLong Weekend marked the beginning of a solid run of good Australian horror films, penned by Everett De Roche, including Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981) and Razorback (1984). The Long Weekend is an extremely tense thriller that doesn’t rely on the usual standard shock strategy to deliver its scares – and ranks as one of the best “nature vs.man” films – steeped in the mid-70s statements of environmentalism, and hinting at a broader ecological agenda with mention of nuclear testing and oil exploration. The small cast is solid despite the minimal amount of dialogue, the sound design is carefully layered while gradually escalutating to increase the tension and the camera work by cinematographer Vincent Monton lends to the realistic feel of the film with voyeuristic documentary-quality shots of the outback surroundings. Not a typical horror film in the standard sense but this small masterpiece is a must see for its slow, eerie pacing and atmosphere. Also worth noting: The film was remade in 2008 with Jim Caviezel.
7- Snowtown (2011)
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Snowtown is unrelentingly grim and terrifying. Director Justin Kurzel delivers a slow effective burn, examining how one man’s harmful beliefs spread through a community in the most horrific way possible. Snowtown is an instant classic, showing great promise for an first time filmmaker. Kurzel, for the most part. avoids sensationalistic, gruesome or exploitative techniques, and very little actual onscreen violence, yet Snowtown may just be one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen.
6- Next of Kin – 1982
Directed by Tony Williams
The slow measured pacing may put off some people but if you have the patience to sit it out, Next of Kin offers one of the best payoffs in any of the films mentioned on this list with a thrilling ending and an unforgettable final shot. Next of Kin jumps from a gothic style mystery-thriller with a hint of the supernatural to a full on giallo style third act reminiscent of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Perhaps influenced by Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Next of Kin is the closest I have seen to matching the atmosphere of The Shining. An absolutely breathtaking distinctive musical score by Klaus Schulze (drummer of the early incarnations of Tangerine Dream) and incredible stylish visual imagery make this a must see.
5- The Frighteners (1996)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Following the true-life matricide tale, Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson follows up with his version of Ghostbusters.The Frighteners is an incredibly underrated horror-comedy that deserves more praise. Jackson directs at a breakneck pace and the cast all deliver fine performances – with Michael J. Fox doing a better than adequate job in the lead and Jeffrey Combs as the over-the-top Special Agent Milton Dammers. The special effects, which were done exclusively by a New Zealand company, are impressive and give ILM a run for their money and the editing of the flashbacks aid in overlooking some of the script’s flaws. Poltergeists, ghostbusters, serial killers, gore, laughs and mystery – The Frighteners is simply awesome!
4- The Loved Ones (2009)
Directed by Sean Byrne
Sean Byrne’s debut feature, The Loved Ones is a unique mix of teen angst, torture porn, melodrama and the conventional slasher tropes. It’s a gore-filled shocker that goes for laughs by paying homage to the outlandish low-budget video nasties of the ’70s and ’80s, blending together Misery, Saw, Prom Night, The Evil Dead and Carrie.
Director Sean Byrne who made several shorts prior, is another example of the talent emerging in the horror scene down under. This Australian feature is dark, intense, sharp and extremely gruesome, yet Byrne encourages the audience to laugh along cutting back between comedic moments and plenty of jolts, gasps, and real shocks. The balance of humour and horror is scaled so perfectly that the scares sneak up when least expected.
3- Dead Alive (Braindead)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Originally released as Braindead, Dead Alive is the Godfather of Kiwi gore and the magnum opus of Peter Jackson’s early career. Jackson’s second feature gleefully eclipses the gross-out quotient of not only his splatter-fest debut, but of any movie ever made before. The finale is the greatest single piece of gore-fest ever put on celluloid, using 300 litres of fake blood pumped at five gallons per second. The tone is cartoonishly comic, and the premise is simple, but Dead Alive is one of the most inventive and outrageous splatter-fests ever made.
2- Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Directed by Peter Weir
Based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, which suggests the events actually occurred, Picnic at Hanging Rock relates the story of the disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher during a picnic to Hanging Rock on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, and the subsequent effect on the local community.
Weir recalled that when the film was first screened in the United States, American audiences were disturbed by the fact that the mystery remained unsolved. The questions that linger after seeing Weir’s masterpiece reveal as much about you as they do about the film. Picnic at Hanging Rock creates a haunting atmosphere with a tour de force of imagery, score, pacing, direction and performance. Simply a masterpiece.
1- Last Wave (1977)
Directed by Peter Weir
I’ve been arguing all week long as to wether or not The Last Wave should be considered a horror film . Well I think it is. In fact the tagline reads, “The Occult Forces. The Ritual Murder. The Sinister Storms. The Prophetic Dreams. The Last Wave”.
The Last Wave is an especially evocative horror film, but a horror film nevertheless. Peter Weir follows up on his critically acclaimed masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock with this visually striking and totally engrossing, surrealist psychological thriller. Weir’s film expresses a rather apocalyptic sensibility – a doomsday machine derived from native Aboriginal mythology. Absolutely brilliant.
Special mention: Rogue, Ruins, Lake Mungo, Nightmares, The Locals, Strange Behaviour (Dead Kids) and Body Melt.
Oversights: I still have not seen Cassandra, Night Of Fear, Bedevil, Van Dieman’s Land nor Contagion, although I hear they are pretty good.