Horror is the most popular genre for buried secrets and things we’ve tried to avoid – and can’t. But sometimes terror is also about catharsis, or just a good time. Genres are fluid and often in the eye of the beholder.
For the purposes of this list, my definition of “horror” applies to titles that have been marketed as such, even if other tags might apply as well. But what makes these “great”?
The most memorable films are those with a clear point of view, and feel like a true reflection of their time and place. There is often a reason for the film, even if the execution is flawed. That’s why I didn’t exclude low-budget films (a couple of those even micro-budget ones). My horror experience has always been about discovery: an unknown filmmaker can produce a work that resonates more than the greatest studio film.
I do admit that most of the films on this list tell stories from white Australian (invaders) perspectives. But indigenous filmmaking will become increasingly central to the terrible canon in the years to come, and there are already promising signs of that, with projects like Dark Place and Jon Bell’s new short film The Moogai. Anyone who cares about terror should oppose this long-term development – it will be sensational.
15. Family Demons (2009)
Made in Adelaide with a budget of less than $ 10,000, Family Demons is a rough diamond. A teenage girl (Cassandra Kane) endures a life of retirement, controlled by her alcoholic mother (Kerry Reid). The filmmaking may lack polish but the storytelling is confident, moving and provocative. It’s good to see that writer and director Ursula Dabrowsky has new feature film projects in the pipeline, including the third in this “demonic” trilogy.
14. Alison’s Birthday (1981)
Writer and director Ian Coughlan tells the story of a 16-year-old girl whose extended family does a strangely important thing about her maturity. Without giving too much away, it presents a Celtic cult transplanted to the southern hemisphere, which is as valid a folkloric rationale as any. (And, from a contemporary perspective, preferable to the “Indian cemetery” trope.) Maybe Alison’s Birthday will miss the mark if you’ve seen a lot of movies in this vein and are able to guess where everything is headed. It’s not subtle – but that’s why it works.
13. Johnny Ghost (2011)
You will either be on board for the journey that Johnny Ghost is taking you on, or not. Millicent, played with quiet charisma by Anni Finsterer, is a rarity on screen: an older woman who is imperfect and bothered by her hard past. She is not investigating a crime or shooting anyone; she is just a man trying to grow and improve. The black-and-white film by writer and director Donna McRae is filled with a genuine sense of world that shaped this woman: the alternative music scene of the 1980s Melbourne. As if one of the characters of Dogs in Space had grown up and had to finally deal with his shit.
12. Relic (2020)
Come for a trio of strong performances and stay tuned for the atmosphere, attention to detail and a few cleverly crafted moments of body horror. What makes Natalie Erika James ’directorial debut really stand out, though, is that it carries an almost entirely metaphorical boast to its extreme. Senility itself is an invading force that manifests itself in many ways, from the changing body of the protagonist, Edna, to the labyrinthine corridors of her house; she even eats her family photos, in an attempt to keep safe what she is about to lose. Few Australian films operate at this level (The Babadook is a major exception), although it is a more common approach in Japanese horror.
11. Wolf Creek (2005)
I remember taking turns having fun and frustrating the conversation around Wolf Creek when it was released. The advantage of the buzz was that many moviegoers took a push on something outside their comfort zone. The downside was that there was a lot of subsequent genre snobbery. All that aside, it’s an accomplished filmmaking. The most effective scene for me is the one where nothing really happens: having been introduced to the clearly dangerous Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), there is a wide shot of him dragging the unsuspecting tourists car back to his campsite. That long moment of anticipation is powerful and somehow reminds me of the Dutch cult classic The Vanishing. When curiosity overcomes the instinct for self-preservation, things can actually go very wrong.
10. The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is unusual in the context of Australian cinema, which so often tends towards silenced realism in cinematography and design. It features a fantastic monster informed by German expressionism, and its other influences include The Shining (director Jennifer Kent said the book more than the film), The Tenant and The Haunting of Julia. In the coming years, The Babadook will continue to have a huge impact on aspiring and emerging filmmakers, both in Australia and globally. It gives them permission to think boldly and create their own way forward.
9. Patrick (1978)
This exploitative film might be depressing in smaller hands but director Richard Franklin holds our attention from the first frame to the last with strong framing and editing. The carefree but open-eyed Patrick (Robert Thompson) makes a surprisingly effective villain, with enough vulnerability to lend pathos to proceedings. He is Australia’s response to Norman Bates in many ways (and Franklin directed the underrated Psycho II.) Susan Penhaligon is attractive as the nurse who sees the truth, and it is bizarre but not unwelcome to meet Robert Helpmann in a supporting role. Julia Blake is amazing as the smart but domineering matron who meets an unfortunate end.
8. The Well (1997)
Directed by Samantha Lang and based on the Elizabeth Jolley novel, The Well takes place in cold and claustrophobic rural New South Wales. Basically binary, its strength is in the rather theatrical performances. Pamela Rabe is Hester, a repressed loner whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of Katherine, a damaged younger woman (Miranda Otto). Oh, and something is moving in the abandoned well near their house … Or is it?
7. Wake in Fight (1971)
This film has found new audiences internationally since it was remastered and shown at Cannes in 2009 (Martin Scorsese once called it “a deeply critical and annoying film … it left me speechless”). Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, it is a brutal assessment of Australia and I suspect the sting will not soon fade, not while misogyny and racism continue to infest society. That said, the film is also a bit fun, in such a terrifying-it-fun way. Also, if you ever think you’re having a bad day, give Wake in Fright a watch – it’s guaranteed to put your problems in perspective!
6. Bedevil (1993)
Tracy Moffat’s trilogy of art stories reflects on the conventions of the “scary story,” as well as memory, contested and haunted land, and the places where cultures collide. Each story is told in a combination of mock documentary and stylized vignettes, as ordinary people retell urban legends. From the delicate intense green light of the mangroves setting to the vivid mallow of the ghost train story, every frame of Bedevil is carefully crafted and filled with meaning.
5. 100 Acres of Blood (2012)
More strongly supporting the comedy side of horror comedy, writers / directors brothers Colin and Cameron Cairnes are doing on both levels here. Stupid, bloody and warm-hearted film, 100 Bloody Acres is a really fun experience. Like Wolf Creek, the plot revolves around a trio of young townspeople venturing into the country and coming face to face with the locals. It includes a brief nod to Rebecca Gibney’s continued appeal. Will foreign audiences receive it? Probably not, but we don’t always have to worry about that.
4. Celia (1989)
In the 1950s, the Victorian government banned domestic rabbits. This, combined with the anti-communist paranoia of the time, adds a dimension to what appears to be a family story. Young Celia (Rebecca Smart) is an unusually imaginative and stubborn child who only cares about getting a pet rabbit. This brings her into conflict with her father (a good performance by Nicholas Eadie), who in turn puts him in opposition to her mother (Maryanne Fahey). Infused with a spirit of second-wave feminism, Ann Turner’s directorial debut (she also wrote it) is multifaceted. There’s plenty too for terrific fans, with great fabulous monsters created with practical effects and an unforgettable Chris Neal score.
3. The Beloved Tendencies (2009)
Lola Stone is an instant horror icon. Released by writer and director in his debut feature, Lola (Robin McLeavy) is a mural that turns sadness into sadism when she kidnaps her teenage classmate Brent (Xavier Samuel) after he declines her offer to attend a school dance. Lola’s confused but equally terrible dad (John Brumpton) is her former companion. Byrne described the film as a “black comedy” but there are some really annoying moments, so go at your own risk. The Loved Ones is a pleasant ride, not only because of its quirky characters but because of the carefully calibrated tension.
2. Closest relative (1982)
Directed by New Zealander Tony Williams, this film has been forgotten but has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years – with the help of Quentin Tarantino. Comparisons have been made to The Shining, but I’m not sure; what I see here is a level of artistic and formal ambition that is rare in Australian cinema. It’s extraordinary in a different way too; one, it is not set in the desert but a boarding house, which was inherited by a sensible young woman named Linda (Jackie Kerin). There’s nothing fancy about the arrangement (despite young John Jarrett’s rather unreliable love interest). But the kind-hearted naturalism of Kerin’s performance combines to great effect with Williams ’stylistic accomplishments and a suspenseful plot about a murderer on the loose. And the final scene will stay with you for a long time.
1. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
I’ve written before about why I rate Picnic as high as a horror movie, and I’m hardly alone about this one. It’s a glorious epoch piece, but also some sort of rubbish. It is explosively experimental, unique and critical in a way that is difficult to deconstruct or shake off. This adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel is full of fascinating and specific characters. There is no girl who is “the beautiful”. They are all human. And the ensemble population works at a very high level. Equally important is director Peter Weir’s use of film language, such as the scene when the girls first disappear. There are sudden zooming, loud sound effects, predominant music, shouts with reverb. Weir knows when to go for a break and when to hold back. Moments of excess are followed by languid, haunted sequences. It is both a story of traumatic events and what lies behind.