May 15, 2015

13 Best Australian Horror Films

Article By: Tony Timpone

Directed by 70-year-old Aussie George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road revs up as the summer action thriller to beat. With Fury Road, Miller himself reboots the trilogy he first launched in 1979 with Mel Gibson as his postapocalyptic hero, the success of which helped put “Ozploitation” movies on the map. Today Chiller’s latest installment of The Friday 13 catalogues the finest in Australian horror. (Titles arranged according to year of release.)

1. Wake in Fright (1971)

With a title like that and the presence of Halloween’s Donald Pleasence in a co-starring role, you might think Wake in Fright is edge-of-your-seat terror. Not exactly, but this was the closest the fledgling Australian film industry came to tackling horrifying topics prior to a genre explosion in the late ’70s. Directed by American Ted Kotcheff (who went on to helm disparate blockbusters such as First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s), Wake in Fright charts a vacationing school teacher’s miserable moral decline when he loses everything during an unlucky rural stopover. Said rest stop includes incessant macho posturing, uncontrollable drinking binges and a real kangaroo slaughter not for the squeamish. Feared lost for decades, archivists rediscovered the film in 2004 and, championed by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Wake in Fright has since been crowned one of the best Australian films of all time.

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2. The Last Wave (1977)

A pre-Thorn Birds Richard Chamberlain plays a Sydney lawyer defending five Aboriginal men accused of a ritualistic murder in this apocalyptic mood piece directed by Peter Weir (Witness, The Truman Show). He’s a by-the-book guy whose mental state begins to fall apart when he begins experiencing disturbing premonitions of an impending Armageddon to rival the biblical Great Flood. Far from outright shocker, this surreal, mystical chiller will nonetheless haunt your dreams.

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3. Long Weekend (1978)

We previously lauded this “nature’s revenge” flick (about a troubled couple on a holiday from hell) here, but it deserves a prominent place on this list too. Long Weekend’s screenwriter, U.S.-born Everett De Roche, emerged as Australia’s go-to horror person, penning such favorites as the Carrie-inspired Patrick and the lecherous orangutan movie Link, as well as two other entries on this baker’s dozen directory—Razorback and Roadgames.

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4. Roadgames (1981)

Hauling “porkers to Perth,” loquacious trucker Stacy Keach begins a cat-and-mouse game with a hitchhiker-butchering psycho. Directed by Richard (Patrick) Franklin, Roadgames (a.k.a. Road Games) came out during the height of the slasher craze, and thanks to the bright casting of Halloween screamer Jamie Lee Curtis and a misleading ad campaign, many assumed that this was just more stalk-and-slash. Roadgames actually pays homage to the suspense and witty repartee of the Master himself, Alfred Hitchcock (especially Rear Window). Keach turns in a terrific performance as the desert hauler, and the critical plaudits for this nail-biter landed Aussie Franklin, appropriately, the Psycho II directing gig.

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5. Razorback (1984)

Local director Russell Mulcahy cut his teeth on commercials and trendy MTV Duran Duran music videos in the ’80s, and that aesthetic (flashy visuals, quick cutting) carries over to this exciting action horror film. When his crusading journalist wife disappears in the Outback, husband Gregory Harrison picks up her trail. Did she run afoul of vicious kangaroo poachers? Or could it be a giant marauding pig (the “razorback” of the title) that has been the stuff of neighborhood legend. Cinematographer Dean (Dances with Wolves) Semler shoots the Outback like some arid alien wasteland, and combined with Mulcahy’s showy work, this killer boar movie never bores.

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6. Dark Age (1987)

Like Razorback, the popularity of Jaws also inspired this rip snorter about a man-eating crocodile on the loose. Sympathetic park ranger/conservationist John Jarratt teams up with a couple of tribal Aborigines, who want to protect the beast on religious grounds. Even though the massive croc kills a child in one of the film’s most shocking scenes (seen above....it's disturbing), Dark Age mostly sides with the reptile and the men who attempt to protect it from revenge-minded poachers. Ozploitation buff Quentin Tarantino loved this movie so much that he later cast Jarratt (alongside himself) for a small bit in Django Unchained.

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7. Dead Calm (1989)

Before she became Mrs. Tom Cruise, pretty Nicole Kidman made this suspenseful sleeper in her native country. After losing their child in a graphic car accident, Kidman and husband Sam Neill hit the high seas to escape their grief. Trouble starts when they pick up a stranded man (Billy Zane of Titanic; this guy should stay out of the water!), the sole survivor of a disabled schooner nearby. When Neill (rather foolishly) leaves his wife to investigate the sinking vessel, Zane obsesses over the woman Fatal Attraction-style. Director Phillip Noyce and writer Terry (Mad Max) Hayes skillfully engineer waves of palpable anxiety throughout Dead Calm, and except for an ill-fitting Friday the 13th finish, this boat has few holes.

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8. Wolf Creek (2005)

In the noughties, torture porn became all the rage, from Hostel’s Eastern European back alleys to the dingy warehouses of the Saw franchise. Even the Australian Outback wasn’t safe in Wolf Creek, a finger snippin’/spine severin’ superior slasher. Jovial sadist Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) entraps a trio of backpackers in his remote lair, where he torments and murders them in cruel, clinical detail. Writer/director Greg McLean orchestrates his terror well and provides us with characters/victims we care about. Jarratt’s the star here, though, having a field day as the maniacal human hunter. The actor returned as this psychotic Crocodile Dundee for 2013’s bigger, bolder and bloodier Wolf Creek 2.

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9. Rogue (2007)

McLean continued to show promise as one of the genre’s top new talents with this rampaging crocodile movie. A group of tourists heads up river to take in Australia’s unspoiled Northern Territory, but a massive crocodile gets all territorial on them and sinks their boat. Trapping them on a tiny mud island with the tide rapidly coming in, the croc begins picking off the doomed sightseers, who include Alias’ Michael Vartan, Jarratt again, Avatar’s Sam Worthington and young Mia Wasikowska of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. McLean breathlessly ratchets up the suspense in this lean green monster machine, as in a failed escape sequence and hero Vartan’s final battle inside the enraged reptile’s body-strewn den. This croc rocks!

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10. Daybreakers (2009)

Like they achieved with their debut zombie opus Undead, writers/directors Michael and Peter Spierig brought fresh blood to a hackneyed subgenre with this largely overlooked fangbanger. With Daybreakers, the brothers dreamt up a chilling dystopian future where a plague has transformed over 90 percent of the population into junior Draculas. However, with the liquid food supply dwindling, hematologist/human sympathizer Ethan Hawke and a clandestine band of fellow vampires (including Willem Dafoe) try to concoct a substitute for the red stuff. Sam Neill complicates things as the monster world’s nefarious Donald Trump stand-in. With Daybreakers, vampires rule and humans serve as cattle. And you thought GMOs were bad for you!

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11. The Reef (2010)

You don’t need Shark Week or the umpteenth airing of Jaws to keep you out of the water. Just check out this fact-based Great White saga, where a quartet of friends and their yacht captain become lost at sea when their boat capsizes. While the sailor stays behind, the others decide to swim to a nearby island. Unfortunately for them, the ocean’s deadliest predator drops in for a human buffet. Director Andrew Trauki previously terrorized us with the murdering crocodile movie Black Water (another good one), and with The Reef again displays a flair for building tension with minimal resources. And instead of utilizing CGI or animatronics, he filmed real sharks for The Reef, adding another petrifying layer of verisimilitude to this tragic story.

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12. The Loved Ones (2010)

A sort of Deadly in Pink, The Loved Ones introduces the worst prom date since Carrie. Grief-stricken Brent (Xavier Samuel of Twilight: Eclipse) makes the mistake of turning down the big dance invitation from Lola (Robin McLeavy). Scorned but unbowed, Lola kidnaps Brent and holds him hostage in her basement, aided and abetted by her equally psychotic father (John Brumpton). With the young man captive, Lola throws her own deranged prom night, though this one involves the painful implementation of various power tools. Love means never having to say your face looks like a bloody hamburger. The Loved Ones’ writer/director Sean Byrne crafts an intimate torture picture show, though he gives much of the gory proceedings a lighter touch than you might expect. And Byrne knows we can’t wait to see the bad guys get theirs, and he doesn’t disappoint. You just might soil your grundies!

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13. The Babadook (2014)

Last year’s must-see horror movie even scared the pea soup out of Exorcist director William Friedkin. This primal exercise in pure fright concerns a small boy (Noah Wiseman) and his single mom (Oscar-worthy Essie Davis) who become traumatized by the titular monster living in the shadows of their home. Did the Babadook spring from a seemingly innocuous children’s book or the family’s mental anguish following Dad’s untimely vehicular death? First-time writer/director Jennifer Kent keeps us guessing and fretting the whole time, and this winner announces her as a major filmmaker to watch. An independent smash, The ’dook’s still enjoying midnight bookings in several cities.

So before you put another shrimp on the barbie, check out the aforementioned Aussie horror hits, plus the wonderful documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! Yabber on at our Facebook page or Twitter using #Friday13. Good onya, mate!

Tony Timpone hosted genre actor Ron Perlman at the Fangoria-hosted New York City screening of Poker Night last December.

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