The cinematic landscape of Australian horror and thrillers is just as multifaceted and deadly as much of the flora and fauna that can be found in the Land Down Under. However, even though the concept of “nature strikes back” makes up a substantial part of the genre, Australian horror does not suffer from a shortage of other popular genre tropes such as supernatural monsters and psycho killers – it even boasts a wealth of odd and entertaining “Ozploitation” movies. More often than not, the brave protagonists of such genre films also come face to face with terrors of a more metaphysical or psychological nature in addition to evidently scary elements. And if these stories happen to be set in a country which is renowned for its vast stretches of untouched wilderness and the sense of isolation that characterizes its rural spaces, then all the better.
After all: nobody can hear you scream when you’re lost in the Outback.
In no particular order, the following list is a collection of Australian films which are all blood-curdling in their own way.
This mockumentary-style horror spins a compelling tale of loss that turns darker as supernatural elements enter the picture. Joel Anderson’s 2008 low budget film focusses on a family that is mourning the death of their daughter and finds itself haunted by the ghostly apparition of her waterlogged body. Reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, the story is told using a series of interviews, voice overs, and recordings of the alleged haunting. While this may not sound particularly original, the plot takes a surprising turn in its second act – ultimately, the girl’s death only serves as a starting point for another story altogether and invokes a sense of foreboding which does not fade until after the credits.
This 2011 murder drama is based on the real case of three men who planned and committed the killings of 12 people in South Australia over two decades ago. The element of horror in Justin Kurzel’s (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) chilling directorial debut does not stem from a supernatural source, but rather from its masterful portrayal of human evil and the extreme manipulation that the film’s troubled protagonist experiences at the hands of the charismatic sociopath who incites the murders. Snowtown features crisp cinematography, powerful acting, and a shocking descent into brutality, madness, and inescapable tragedy.
As one of the older but no less disturbing entries on this list, this 1981 Australian road thriller already occupies a special place by virtue of its leading actress and ultimate Scream Queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. Incorporating elements of revenge cinema, Road Games follows the story of a young woman and a truck driver who are stalking a serial killer that is murdering girls and dumps their remains along the highway. Hailed by many as the Australian Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Franklin delivers a tension-filled killer chase which is just gory enough to tickle genre aficionados.
Dead End Drive-In
A film conceived at the tail-end of the Ozploitation movement and the Mad Max-hype of the 80s, Dead End Drive-In is set in a dystopian world that lures societal undesirables into drive-in theatres which are actually a disguise for concentration camps devoid of law, order, and parental control. Regardless of its categorization as an “action-horror” film, action clearly takes precedence over horror in this gang-war extravaganza which boasts punk culture references, era-appropriate hairdos, zany leather jackets, new wave music, and tuned cars. Horror or not, you are in for one hell of a ride.
With Daybreakers, Australian filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig aim for a more gritty and futuristic presentation of the vampire myth. The film retains traditional vampire tropes such as “vampires have no reflection and they burn in the sun,” and mixes them with the laws and pseudo-science of a world which is controlled by corporate vampirism that has driven humanity to the edge of extinction. With a cast including names such as Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, and Willem Dafoe, this mixture of horror and science fiction is a treat for everybody with a thirst for a more scientific approach to the vampire myth.
This 2007 British-Australian nature horror follows a group of four young people who find themselves stalked and terrorized by a malicious crocodile in the claustrophobic setting of the northern Australian mangrove seas. The situation escalates as the crocodile capsizes their boat and forces the group to seek refuge in the mangrove trees. Invoking the primal fear of being hunted by a superior and calculating predator, Andrew Traucki and David Nerlich have created a truly traumatizing cinematic experience that will keep you on the tips of your toes (and your feet out of still waters).
There is no bloodthirsty crocodile in this 1978 eco-horror, but nature definitely strikes back in this film that follows the exploits of a couple who goes on a weekend camping trip and carelessly pollutes and endangers the bush and its wildlife. Director Colin Eggleston delivers tongue-in-cheek environmental justice as nature itself becomes a force to be reckoned with in this nostalgic excursion into early Australian horror.
This 2014 Australian-Canadian psychological horror marks Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut and has gained critical acclaim after its release. A disturbing tale about a single mother who has to raise a difficult child while still struggling with the aftermath of her husband’s traumatic death, this film also features one of the most memorable movie monsters in recent memory. The Babadook is more than a horrifying creature that occupies the realm between nightmare and reality – it also functions as a metaphor for the mother’s grief, loneliness, and her struggle with parenthood. A definite must-see.
Famous enough to be spoofed in The Simpsons’ Halloween special episode “Treehouse of Horror XXI,” this psychological thriller from 1989 leaves viewers wondering which of the protagonists is to be trusted. Starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill, and Billy Zane, Dead Calm was filmed around the barrier reef and unfolds as a whodunnit with a psychopathic twist as a married couple encounters a lone survivor at sea and grants him shelter on their yacht. Be prepared for high tension and some solid scares in this atmospheric ocean-shocker where nothing is quite what it seems.
Next of Kin
One of the more obscure films on this list, Next of Kin is an often-overlooked gem of Australian horror cinema. Inspired by Gothic themes and the hypnotic atmosphere of Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining, it tells the story of a young heiress who returns to the house she inherited and is sucked into a web of fear, murder, and horrible revelations. Endorsed by Quentin Tarantino himself, this 1982 film is especially interesting for lovers of dream-like horror and moody 80s synth soundtracks.
Saw (later renamed Saw 0.5)
Last but not least, I would like to include a horror short which was developed and shot by Australian director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell in 2003. It was intended as a showcase of a scene which the two filmmakers then used to successfully pitch their horror feature to Lionsgate studios. The rest is history and has grown into a seven-part franchise which has gained commercial success and a cult following for its themes and extreme depictions of gore. As a special (bloody) treat, enjoy the original short film which became the foundation for the Saw franchise: