Herror is the preferred type for hidden secrets and things we try to escape – but can’t. But sometimes horror 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 sold in this way, even though other labels may apply. But what makes these “great”?
The most memorable films are those with a clear point of view that feel like a true reflection of their time and place. There’s usually a raison d’être to carry the film, even if the execution is flawed. That’s why I didn’t rule out low budget movies (some of them even small budget). My horror experience has always been about discovery: An unknown filmmaker can produce something that resonates more than the biggest studio films.
I admit that most of the films on this list are told from the point of view of white Australians (invaders).But in the coming years, homegrown filmmaking will increasingly be at the heart of the horror canon, and there are already encouraging signs, such as dark place New short with Jon Bell mugai. Anyone who cares about horror should push this long overdue evolution – it will be spectacular.
15. Family Demon (2009)
Made in Adelaide on a budget of less than $10,000, the Home Demon is a rough diamond. A teenage girl (Cassandra Kane) lives a life of isolation under the control of her alcoholic mother (Kerry Reed). The filmmaking may lack polish, but the storytelling is confident, moving and provocative. It’s great to see writer-director Ursula Dabrowsky working on new feature film projects, including the third installment in this “Demon” trilogy.
14. Alison’s Birthday (1981)
Writer-director Ian Coughlan tells the story of a 16-year-old girl whose extended family is doing something big for her coming of age. Without revealing too much, it features a Celtic cult transplanted to the southern hemisphere, which is as valid as any folklore. (And, from a contemporary perspective, that’s preferable to the “Indian cemetery” trope.) If you’ve seen a lot of these movies and can guess where it’s going, maybe Alison’s birthday will miss the mark. It’s not subtle – but that’s why it works.
13. Johnny Ghost (2011)
You either join the journey Johnny Ghost takes you on, or you don’t. Played by Anne Finstler, Millicent has a quiet charm and is a rare figure on screen: an imperfect older woman troubled by her difficult past. She’s not investigating a crime or shooting anyone; she’s just someone trying to grow and improve. Writer-director Donna McRae’s black-and-white film incorporates the real-world sense that shaped this woman: the alternative music scene of 1980s Melbourne. It’s like a character in Dogs in Space grows up and ends up having to deal with their shit.
12. Relic (2020)
Come for a great performance by a trio, feel the atmosphere, attention to detail and some masterfully crafted moments of body horror. However, what makes Natalie Erica James’ directorial debut truly stand out is, It takes an almost entirely metaphorical conceit to the extreme. Aging itself is an erosive force in many ways, from protagonist Edna’s changing body to the labyrinthine hallways of her home; she even eats her family photos to protect what she’s about to lose. Few Australian films operate on this level (The Babadook being an important exception), although it is a more common approach in Japanese horror.
11. Wolf Creek (2005)
I remember being amused and frustrated by the conversation surrounding Wolf Creek when it was released. The good thing about buzzing is that a lot of moviegoers are betting on something outside their comfort zone. The downside is the genre snobbery that comes with it. All that aside, it’s full-fledged filmmaking. The scene that worked best for me was the one that didn’t really happen: wide-angle shot of him dragging unsuspecting tourists’ cars back to his campsite after being introduced to the obviously dangerous Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) . That long anticipation moment was powerful and in some ways reminded me of the Dutch cult classic Disappearance. When curiosity overwhelms the instinct for self-preservation, things can get really bad.
10. Babadook (2014)
Babadook is unusual in the context of Australian cinema, which tends to lean towards soft realism in cinematography and design. It depicts a fantastical monster inspired by German Expressionism, and its other influences include The Shining (which director Jennifer Kent says is more of a book than a movie), The Tenant and The Haunting of Julia. The Babadook will continue to have a huge impact on aspiring emerging filmmakers in Australia and around the world for years to come. It allows them to think big and create their own path forward.
9. Patrick (1978)
This exploitative film may be frustrating in smaller hands, but director Richard Franklin grabs our attention from the first frame to the last with powerful framing and editing. A comatose but wide-eyed Patrick (Robert Thompson) is a surprisingly effective villain, vulnerable enough to bring grief to a lawsuit. He’s in many ways Australia’s answer to Norman Bates (Franklin did direct Underrated Psycho II.) Susan Penharrigan is attractive as a nurse who sees the truth, meets Robert Hepp Mann’s supporting role is strange but not unpleasant. Julia Black, a clever but domineering hostess, has an unfortunate end.
8. Well (1997)
Directed by Samantha Long and based on the novel by Elizabeth Jolly, The Well takes place in a cold and claustrophobic New South Wales countryside. Essentially a two-handed, it has the advantage of being quite dramatic. Pamela Rabe as Hester, a repressed loner whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of a traumatized young woman, Catherine (Miranda Otto) . Oh, and there’s something churning in the abandoned well near their house…or is there?
7. Cry Undecided (1971)
Since it was remastered and screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, the film has been finding new audiences internationally (Martin Scorsese once called it “a deeply disturbing and disturbing film . . . It leaves me speechless”). Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, it’s a brutal take on Australia, and I doubt the sting will subside anytime soon, while misogyny and racism continue to breed society. That said, the movie is also entertaining, in a very entertaining way. Also, if you think you’ve had a bad day, give Wake in Fright a watch – it’s guaranteed to put your problem in perspective!
6. Devil (1993)
Tracey Moffat’s trilogy of art stories reflects the conventions of “horror stories,” as well as memories, contested and haunted lands, and places where cultures collide. Each story is told through simulations and stylized vignettes, like a common man retelling an urban legend. From the delicate, intense green glow of the mangrove backdrop to the vivid fuchsia of the ghost train tale, Bedevil’s every frame is meticulously crafted with meaning.
5. 100 Bloody Acres (2012)
Writer/director brothers Colin and Cameron Keynes lean more towards the comedy side of the horror comedy, which excels on both levels here. 100 Bloody Acres is a goofy, bloody, heartwarming movie and a truly entertaining experience. Like Wolf Creek, the plot revolves around three young urbanites who venture into the countryside and come face-to-face with the locals. It includes a brief nod to Rebecca Gibney’s enduring appeal. Will overseas audiences get it? Probably not, but we don’t always need to care about that.
4. Celia (1989)
In the 1950s, the Victorian government banned domestic rabbits. This, combined with the anti-communist paranoia of the era, added dimension to what was ostensibly a family story. Young Celia (Rebecca Smart) is a very imaginative and stubborn kid who cares only about getting a pet rabbit. This puts her in conflict with her father (a great performance by Nicholas Edie), which in turn pits him against her mother (Marian Fah). Infused with second-wave feminism, Ann Turner’s directorial debut (which she also wrote) is multifaceted. Horror fans have a lot to offer, too, with superb fairytale monsters created through practical effects and Chris Neill’s unforgettable soundtrack.
3. Relatives (2009)
Lola Stone is an instant horror icon. Indulged by the writer and director in his debut feature, Lola (Robin McLevy) is a wallflower who kidnaps her when her teenage classmate Brent (Xavier Samuel), who refuses to attend a school dance, kidnaps her. She turns grief into sadism. Lola’s bewildered but equally terrifying father (John Brumpton) is her former partner. Byrne describes the film as a “dark comedy,” but there are some truly disturbing moments, so do it at your own risk. Family is an enjoyable journey, not only for its quirky characters, but also for its well-calibrated tension.
2. Close Relatives (1982)
The film, directed by New Zealander Tony Williams, was forgotten but has been reborn in recent years with the support of Quentin Tarantino. Comparisons have been made to The Shining, but I’m not sure; what I see is a rare level of artistic and formal ambition in Australian cinema. It’s an outlier in other ways too; on the one hand, it’s not set in the outback, but a nursing home, inherited by a sensible young woman named Linda (Jackie Kerin). There’s nothing glamorous about the setting (though young John Jarrett is a rather dodgy love interest). But the good-natured naturalism of Kerin’s performance combined with Williams’ stylized flamboyance and suspenseful storyline about a killer on the loose has a huge impact. The last scene will stay with you for a long time.
1. Picnic on Hanging Rocks (1975)
I’ve written before why I rate Picnic so high as a horror movie, and I’m not alone. It’s a brilliant period work, but also a bit rubbish. It’s explosively experimental, unique and disturbing in a way that’s hard to deconstruct or get rid of. This adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel is filled with fascinating and specific characters. No girl is “pretty”. They are all people. The ensemble actors operate at a very high level. Equally important is director Peter Weir’s use of the film’s language, such as the scene where the girls disappear for the first time. There are sudden zooms, loud sound effects, domineering music, reverberating screams. Will knows when to go broke and when to back down. A moment of excess is followed by a languid, haunted sequence. This is both a story about a traumatic event and a story about the lingering afterward.