The Monster Within: Australian Gothic emphasises the terror of the familiar
White-heritage Australians have been making films that can be identified as Australian Gothic (primarily a literary style rather than a genre) since the early 1970s, picking up where the rest of the world left off – particularly Americans, who languished in films like Rebecca (Hitchcock 1940) and the Euro influence of Frankenstein and Dracula, but who had incorporated the exhausted genre as a whole into horror films. Gothic as literature was big in the late 1700s but was being parodied by the start of the next century and started to lose its value. In the early 1900s with the advent of mainstream film making, there was a reignited interest in the styles of Gothic as genre, but that interest gave way to the advent of the horror film, a genre deemed to break open the boundaries of the gothic film and gothic novel. Since then, contemporary film gothic tends to be represented by films like Interview with the Vampire, the multiple Frankenstein films, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeny Todd and most other Tim Burton films.
However, examined via the literary tradition, Australians have been making a unique style of Gothic film since the 1970s and, seen through the tropes of the gothic novel, films that were first dismissed as rubbish or pretentious (The Cars That Ate Paris, and The Night, The Prowler) become remarkable statements about the white Australian psyche. When the gothic novel first emerged in the mid-1700s it was a way to examine the unspoken, the sublimated fears as unexpressed motivators in the human psyche. Tropes of the gothic novel include: the depiction of a fallen world that impacts characterization, setting and theme; the wanderer in perpetual exile; and a journey to the sublime via human horror rather than temperance. Its ideas like this that gave birth to Frankenstein and Dracula, both entities very much connected to sex and (re)birth, death and loneliness, but also to the monster within, searching not for redemption but for a kind of beauty. In the case of the traditional gothic monster, he is a creature made from ourselves, our own psyches. Horror took this monster to the extreme, removing the subtleties and in the place of the relationship between terror/desire it emphasised the horrific death (fear) against sex itself and turned the monster into a completely inhuman force, determined on destruction and consumption. While horror was making its presence felt, Australians were quietly making films that, against trend, further absorbed and exemplified the monster within. The traditional gothic monster becomes what it was initially, an introverted sublimated impact of social forces on the psyche that operates through the wandering individual lost in a decaying world.
Peter Weir is the most obvious originator of the Australian Gothic, his more famous films of this period and genre being Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Cars That Ate Paris. Weir taps into the very uniquely white Australian problem of being a stranger in one’s own land. White Australia has the psychic history of walking onto occupied land and claiming it, generating a feeling of great unease in our relationship with the physical earth in this country, and a strange unease with our identity as inheritors of European culture and displacers of Aboriginal heritage. Many cultures grapple with their historic crimes, but these films depict a specifically white Australian anxiety. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Cars That Ate Paris, the message is about the unknown spirit of the land that can take over the white, troubled psyche. Weir started this exploration in Homesdale (1971) about a group of people who go to a country “retreat” and play a series of “games” that are set up by the staff of the resort. Each day the games involve a confrontation with the ideas of death and mortality. The “weakest” among them succumbs to the psychological pressure and murders one of the guests. In the closing scenes of the film, we see that the murderer has now become one of the staff at Homesdale and will remain when the other guests leave. This is all very Freudian, where psychological rather than supernatural forces become the prime movers in worlds where the protagonists are sure of neither themselves nor their neighbor. In 1979 Weir made The Plumber, a psychological horror about an unnerving tradesman who invades a home via the bathroom, that place where the unmentionable happens and we rid ourselves of our own generated filth and waste. Summerfield (1977) by Ken Hannam deals with rural Australia and the sublimated strangeness of small towns.
Landscape is a recurring theme in many Australian films, but its malevolence is never as powerfully captured as in Australian Gothic. Horror films such as Wolf Creek and The Babadook use the landscape as an eerie film setting, but they retain the firm resolution that the monster is a thing outside. Even in a film like The Babadook that obviously references the three components of the psyche, the monster is still externalized, even among all the metaphor. Films like The Proposition and Gallipoli use the barren Australian landscape to indicate danger and an environment working against the intentions of the human walking upon it, but its impact is superficial, cosmetic. It’s harsh, and barren. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the landscape is a monster that can devour two girls and a school teacher so that they are never seen again. It subsequently causes the suicide of two more people at the school and implicitly deals with European ideals at odds with the spirit of this strangely foreign land.
Australian Gothic incorporates an examination of society and directly involves it in the deterioration of the protagonist wanderer, who will discover that they are terrifyingly alone. In The Cars That Ate Paris, it is society turned inward that is the gothic monster, but certain themes of Weir’s tell us that the monster is not confined to Paris. The brilliant opening sequences depict a couple designed to appear as if in a commercial, until they are devoured by the malevolent behaviors in Paris. It’s a remarkable prediction and condemnation of film product placement that will become the norm a decade or so later, as well as an attack on the surface of ideal that cinema creates. The speech given by the mayor of Paris at the ball mirrors the speech heard earlier in the car as the Waldo brothers listen to the Australian prime minister. The appearance at the ball of the lobotomised crash victims with cereal packets over their heads is a shocking scene, made all the more so by the applause of approval the citizens of Paris give at their entrance. The cars that ultimately destroy the town are driverless machine monsters that attack the town as by-product of its sleazy revenue. When Arthur is finally able to drive again and escape the town, his freedom comes from committing a horrific murder, and complying with the towns creed. Liberation comes from engagement in society and then a process of destruction, and is a key to the psychological nature of the gothic in Australian cinema.
Around this time, Jim Sharman (of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame) made The Night, The Prowler, a superb example of Australian Gothic written by our own Nobel prize winner Patrick White. It’s a brilliant film that was inappropriately dismissed by the critics as pretentious, and was therefore never given proper analytical examination. Felicity is a psychological stranger in the wealthy 1960s inner Sydney suburbs, constantly at odds with her environment and her hyper-realised conservative mother. Her mental deterioration after she is sexually assaulted firmly places her outside of the society her mother wants her to dominate, as she becomes a prowler herself, gradually taken over by the psychological and societal forces that wealthy society is engaged in a perpetual war against. The film uses flashbacks and other disjointed narrative devices to concentrate the feeling of unease but it is the performances of Ruth Cracknell and Kerry Walker, both obviously physically ‘wrong’ for their roles that brings home the perfect marriage between image as farce and unpleasant truth as an ignored surface tension.
This strain between the ugly and the ordinary is singular and exclusive to Australian Gothic films and the way they have of building the remarkable on the unremarkable. While traditional gothic novels and films emphasise the supernatural, Australian Gothic is not concerned with these themes in the obvious sense, rather emphasizing the terror of the familiar and the ordinary, which is a distinctly under-examined and under-utilized visual and narrative theme.. Where Czech films like The Ear (1970) evoke an eerie relationship with the home because of an externalized oppressive force listening in (communism), Australian cinema emphasizes the everyday nature of white culture as the gothic monster threatening to destabilize, in films like The Plumber (1979) where a very personal environment becomes unfamiliar and dangerous because it is so familiar.
More contemporary films that fall under this example of the Australian gothic are The Well (Samantha Lang 1997), Broken Highway (Laurie McInnes 1994) Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer 1994) and Dogwatch (Laurie McInnes 1999). Of these films, only Bad Boy Bubby was available for viewing in researching this article, despite my reading leading me to believe the others films are better examples of the Australian Gothic aesthetic. Dogwatch didn’t even achieve theatrical release. Hopefully over time, “The Internet” (perhaps a new kind of gothic monster) will facilitate the freedom to view these fantastic Australian films, without the cringe-dominated distribution gatekeepers (controlled by our own refusal to spend money going to see these films) preventing us, so that a proper examination of this under-evaluated style of filmmaking can be further examined. If ever there was a clarion call in Australian arts, it should be to get over our fear of the pretentious, grow up and thoroughly examine our work for what it is – a unique and powerful contribution to the global creative voice.
David Thomas with Garry Gillard – Ten Types of Australian Film Chapter 9: Gothic (2009)
Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka – The Screening of Australia Volume 2: Anatomy of a National Cinema (Currency Press, 2000)
Note: The two references above were instrumental in creating this paper and both expand on the brief analysis in this article, though the opinions expressed in this piece are my own.