In the mid-1970s, Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett wrote a screenplay called Star Beast, a horror film about the crew of an interstellar spaceship terrorized by a deadly extraterrestrial. Alien, as the film eventually would be re-titled, was modeled after proto-slashers like Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, whose Grand Guignol carnage O'Bannon and Shusett had faithfully replicated. But what distinguished Alien from the glut of its genre's contemporaries was the sense of isolation its cosmic setting inspired. Adrift in the infinite blankness of space, the film's victims found themselves with nowhere to hide.
This proved a significant modification to the slasher formula. What's more, it seems to have been a major influence on three decades of filmmakers in Australia, who have discovered that their homeland's natural environment—miles upon miles of toast-dry sand plains and salt pans—afford them a similar appeal. As a result, the country has become a sort of hotbed for horror films in recent years, yielding some of the most acclaimed—and provocative—exponents of a genre not exactly known for pleasing critics. And so, the space-like isolation of the outback has birthed a genre unto itself, and for good reason. Horror writers are always conspiring to thwart escape: hence the locked door, the disconnected phone. But the Australian desert solved the problem of escaping for good, tapping into what made Alien so terrifying. After all, in the outback, no one can hear you scream.
It's a simple gimmick, but a remarkably effective one. Consider its most recent application. Roughly 30 minutes into Greg McLean's new film Wolf Creek 2, Katarina (Shannon Ashlyn), a young German backpacker who has just witnessed her boyfriend's decapitation, wriggles free of her makeshift bindings and flees from her would-be killer. This, you think, is precisely the sort of moment you're always hoping for in a slasher film: The hero has quietly slipped away, narrowly avoiding inevitable torture and death, and all she needs to do now is run for safety. But there's a problem: Katarina is in the Australian outback, and there's nowhere safe to run; there's only more desert. Not surprisingly then, the killer quickly finds her. Later, a British tourist named Paul (Ryan Corr) evades capture at the hands of the same maniac, taking flight across the arid flatlands in his overheated jeep. He, too, finds nothing. The void of the outback proves endless, and it isn't long before Paul, bedraggled and parched, finds himself back within the sights of his pursuer.
The first slasher film to realize the dread-inducing possibilities of the Australian outback was, in fact, the original Wolf Creek, which premiered at Sundance in 2005. At first blush, Wolf Creek seems unremarkable. Indeed, on paper, its premise sounds like the kind of rote teen-baiting genre exercise parodied by Scream nearly a decade earlier: Three attractive, college-aged tourists party their way through a debauched vacation only to be kidnapped and butchered by a knife-wielding psychopath. (The psychopath in question is a certain Mick Taylor, a self-styled outback hunter in the Crocodile Dundee mold played with memorable gusto by John Jarratt.)
The film begins regularly enough with a daylong trek out to a meteorite crater at the remote Wolf Creek National Park, where our travel-weary threesome hitch a ride with the garrulous Taylor after their Sedan refuses to start. From here things proceed more or less as expected. Instruments of torture are intimidatingly brandished. Bodies are maimed and mangled. Hope is ignited and, just as quickly, flatly extinguished.
It's only when Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) stage a sudden escape from Taylor's lair that Wolf Creek tips its hand. Absconding through the bush on foot after losing their getaway car in an accident, the duo take stock of their surroundings and see ... nothing. Anywhere. They're suspended in a vacuum—a black hole of sand and shrubbery. By car, they're hours from sanctuary. By foot, it could be days. Liz decides to sneak back into Taylor's camp to smuggle out another vehicle; she instructs Kristy to continue without her if she's gone for more than a few minutes. Alas, the plan doesn't prove successful. Liz is disemboweled the moment she steps foot back into the camp. Kristy, meanwhile, ambles as far as a nearby highway, where she flags down a passing car. Suddenly the driver's head bursts open in an eruption of blood and brain matter—Taylor has shot him with some sort of high-caliber sniper rifle. Suffice it to say that Kristy doesn't enjoy a happy ending.
Wolf Creek isn't so much frightening as it is bleak—in its limitless desert expanse you can feel the impress of utter hopelessness, as if the fear it traded in were chiefly existential. That goes double for the sequel, in which violence seeps into everything and pain and suffering are meted out as arbitrarily as in a Cormac McCarthy novel. This, obviously, isn't the customary terrain of the average horror film, literally or figuratively. But these are the defining qualities of contemporary Australian horror, which in recent years has become a movement unto itself. Though divisive critically, Wolf Creek proved an enormous box-office success domestically and abroad, earning nearly $30 million theatrically worldwide against its meager budget of about $1 million. Thus, overnight, a genre was born: Aussie Horror.
The genre, however, isn't limited to the slasher film. If anything, some of the most celebrated Aussie horror movies have drawn from vastly different traditions. Among the more widely celebrated is Joel Anderson's mockumentary Lake Mungo, which predates the found-footage trend popularized by Paranormal Activity by more than a year and which, in its seriousness in the face of its increasingly sensational ghost stories, strikes me as considerably more sophisticated than many of the slapdash knockoffs that would follow, from Apollo 18 to The Devil Inside. Though Lake Mungo's setting is largely urban, its major set piece—and, not coincidentally, its scariest scene takes place around the eponymous dry lake, where the miles of barren desert are lent a ghostly aura by the quality of the amateur video. Likewise for the recent Sundance hit The Babadook, a mother-son monster movie whose main connection to the Aussie Horror movement is its unremitting dedication to all that's hopeless and severe.
More typical is Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones, the story of a jilted teenage girl who kidnaps her crush and tortures him on prom night. The premise easily could belong to an American horror film—e.g., Misery or Carrie—but Byrne's sensibility is unmistakably Australian: The violence is unrelenting, the sense of humor blackly macabre and the action takes place, of course, in the middle of nowhere.
Naturally, our hero breaks free from his obsessive companion early on, fleeing from her house in a mad dash for safety only to discover, with a sigh of resignation, that he has nowhere to go. The Loved Ones went unreleased in the United States for a number of years after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in late 2009—it was finally granted a nominal run in major markets in 2012. But it was nevertheless a critical hit, scoring a staggering 98-percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and landing at number 28 on the site's list of the highest-rated horror films of all time.
Oddly enough, however, the most significant boon to the genre's credibility would arrive in the form of a re-release of the 1971 film Wake in Fright. The long-lost cult classic, a harrowing psychological thriller by First Blood director Ted Kotcheff, was re-released in 2012 by indie distributor Drafthouse Films, whose celebrated efforts to return the film to public view brought with it an influx of publicity and attention. It also suddenly seemed apparent that Wake in Fright's blistering portrayal of the outback and the anxieties that curdle under the sweltering Australian sun constituted the principal antecedent of the Aussie horror movement.
Wolf Creek 2, incidentally, features its own not-so-subtle nod to the terrorized British tourist at the heart of Wake in Fright—a fitting homage given the importance of both Kotcheff and McLean to our conception of Aussie Horror. Wolf Creek led the charge, transplanting the Alien template to the outback and reinvigorating the slasher formula in the process; Wake in Fright, on the other hand, informed the movement by setting the bar for an Australian brand of existential dread. It seems clear, with McLean's somewhat self-aware sequel, that Aussie Horror has reached some kind of apex—as the genre goes, it's at the (profusely) bleeding edge.
Calum Marsh is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Pitchfork, and Sight & Sound magazine.
Photo by Mark Rogers, RLJ/Image Entertainment