Genres are fluid and often in the eye of the beholder. Horror is the go-to genre for buried secrets and things we’ve tried to evade – and can’t. But sometimes horror is also about catharsis or just a good time.
For this list, my definition of “horror” applies to titles marketed as such, even if other labels could use it too. 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. A raison d’etre often carries the film, even if the execution is flawed. This is why I haven’t excluded low-budget films (some are even micro-budget). My horror experience has always been about discovery: an unknown filmmaker can produce a work that resonates more than the biggest studio film.
I acknowledge that most of the films on this list tell stories from white Australian (invader) perspectives. But Indigenous film-making will become increasingly central to the horror canon in coming years, and there are promising signs of this already, with projects like Dark Place and Jon Bell’s new short film The Moogai. Anyone who cares about horror should push for this long-overdue evolution – it will be spectacular.
15. Family Demons (2009)
Made in Adelaide on a budget of less than $10,000, Family Demons is a diamond in the rough. A teenage girl (Cassandra Kane) endures a life of isolation, controlled by her alcoholic mother (Kerry Reid). The film-making 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 “demon” trilogy.
14. Alison’s Birthday (1981)
Writer and director Ian Coughlan tells the story of a 16-year-old girl whose extended family is making a weirdly big deal about her coming of age. Without giving too much away, it features 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 burial ground” trope.) Maybe Alison’s Birthday will miss the mark if you’ve seen many films in this vein and can guess where it’s all headed. It’s not subtle – but that’s why it works.
13. Johnny Ghost (2011)
You’ll either be on board for the journey Johnny Ghost takes you on. Writer and director Donna McRae’s black-and-white film is infused with an authentic sense of the world that has shaped this woman: the alternative music scene of 1980s Melbourne. Millicent, played with quiet charisma by Anni Finsterer, is a rarity on screen: an older woman who is imperfect and troubled by her hard-living past. She’s not investigating a crime or shooting anyone; she’s just a person trying to grow and improve. It’s as if one of the characters from Dogs in Space grew up and finally had to deal with their shit.
12. Relic (2020)
Robyn Nevin as Edna in Relic. Photograph: Album/Alamy
Come for a trio of strong performances and stay for the atmosphere, attention to detail, and some cleverly crafted moments of body horror. What makes Natalie Erika James’s directorial debut truly stand out is that it takes an almost entirely metaphorical conceit to its extreme. Senility is an encroaching force that manifests in many ways, from the changing body of the protagonist, Edna, to the labyrinthine corridors of her house; she even eats her family photographs to keep safe what she’s about to lose. Few Australian films operate on this level (The Babadook is an important exception), although it’s a more common approach in Japanese horror.
11. Wolf Creek (2005)
Kestie Morassi as Kristy in Wolf Creek. Photograph: film still handout
I remember being amused and frustrated by the conversation around Wolf Creek when it was released. The buzz’s upside was that many cinemagoers took a punt on something outside their comfort zone. The downside was that there was a lot of ensuing genre snobbery. All that aside, it is accomplished filmmaking. The most effective scene for me is one where nothing happens: having been introduced to the dangerous Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), there’s a wide shot of him towing the unsuspecting tourists’ car back to his campsite. That long moment of anticipation is powerful and, in some ways, reminds me of the Dutch cult classic The Vanishing. When curiosity overrides the instinct for self-preservation, things can go very wrong.
10. The Babadook (2014)
Noah Wiseman as Samuel in The Babadook. Photograph: IFC Films/Courtesy Everett/RE
The Babadook is unusual in the context of Australian cinema, which so often tends towards muted realism in cinematography and design. It features an unbelievable monster informed by German expressionism. Its other influences include The Shining (director Jennifer Kent has said the book more than the film), The Tenant, and The Haunting of Julia. In years to come, The Babadook will continue to influence aspiring and emerging filmmakers in Australia and globally greatly. It permits them boldly and creates a way forward.
9. Patrick (1978)
‘A surprisingly effective villain’ … Robert Thompson as Patrick. Photograph: Youtube
This exploitation flick could have been depressing in lesser hands, but director Richard Franklin holds our attention from the first frame to the last with strong framing and editing. He’s Australia’s answer to Norman Bates in many ways (and Franklin did direct the underrated Psycho II.). The comatose but open-eyed Patrick (Robert Thompson) makes for a surprisingly effective villain, with enough vulnerability to lend pathos to proceedings. Susan Penhaligon is appealing as the nurse who sees the truth, and it is bizarre but not unwelcome to encounter Robert Helpmann in a supporting role. Julia Blake is wonderful as the intelligent 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 a cold and claustrophobic rural New South Wales. Essentially a two-hander, 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). Or is something stirring in the abandoned well near their house … Or is there?
7. Wake in Fright (1971)
‘It’s sort of fun too, in a so-awful-it’s-funny kind of way’ … Jack Thompson in Wake in Fright. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy
This film has been finding new audiences internationally since it was remastered and screened at Cannes in 2009 (Martin Scorsese once called it “a deeply unsettling and disturbing movie … it left me speechless”). Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, it’s a brutal assessment of Australia; I suspect the sting isn’t fade soon, not while misogyny and racism continue to infest society. That said, the film is fun, too, in a so-awful-it’s-funny way. Plus, if you ever think you’re having a bad day, give Wake in Fright a watch – it’s guaranteed to put your problems into perspective!
6. Bedevil (1993)
‘Every frame is meticulously wrought.’ Photograph: Anthony Buckley Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock
Tracy Moffat’s trilogy of arty tales reflects on the conventions of the “scary story”, memory, contested and haunted land, and the places where cultures collide. Each story is told through mockumentary and stylized vignettes, as ordinary people retell urban legends. From the delicate, intense green light of the mangroves setting to the vivid mauve of the ghost train story, every frame of Bedevil is meticulously wrought and filled with meaning.
5. 100 Bloody Acres (2012)
The trailer for 100 Bloody Acres.
Leaning harder on the comedy side of horror-comedy, writer/director brothers Colin and Cameron Cairnes deliver on both levels here. A silly, gory, warm-hearted film, 100 Bloody Acres is a genuinely fun experience. Like Wolf Creek, the plot revolves around a trio of young urbanites venturing into the country and coming face to face with the locals. It includes a brief nod to the enduring appeal of Rebecca Gibney. Will overseas audiences get it? Probably not, but we don’t always have to care about that.
4. Celia (1989)
Infused with a spirit of second-wave feminism, Ann Turner’s directorial debut (she also wrote it) is multifaceted. In the 1950s, the Victorian government banned household rabbits. This, combined with the anti-communist paranoia of the era, adds dimension to what is ostensibly 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 clashes with her father (a fine performance from Nicholas Eadie), which opposes him with her mother (Maryanne Fahey). There’s plenty for horror fans, too, with superb fairytale monsters created via practical effects and an unforgettable score from Chris Neal.
3. The Loved Ones (2009)
Robin McLeavy as Lola Stone in The Loved Ones. Photograph: Album/Alamy
Lola Stone is an instant horror icon. Let loose by writer and director in his debut feature, Lola (Robin McLeavy) is a wallflower who 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 bewildered yet equally awful dad (John Brumpton) is her erstwhile sidekick. The Loved One is an enjoyable ride, not only for its quirky characters but for the carefully calibrated tension. Byrne has described the film as a “jet black comedy,” but there are some genuinely disturbing moments, so proceed at your own risk.
2. Next of Kin (1982)
‘A level of artistic and formal ambition rare in Australian cinema’ … Next of Kin. Photograph: Youtube
Directed by New Zealander Tony Williams, this film was forgotten but has recently enjoyed a renaissance–assisted by Quentin Tarantino’s endorsement. Comparisons to The Shining have been made, but I’m not sure about that; I do see a level of artistic and formal ambition here that is rare in Australian cinema. It’s an outlier in other ways, too; for one, it is not set in the outback but a retirement home, which has been inherited by a sensible young woman named Linda (Jackie Kerin). There’s nothing glamorous about the set-up (notwithstanding a young John Jarrett as a rather unreliable love interest). But the good-natured naturalism of Kerin’s performance combines with Williams’s stylistic flourishes and a suspenseful storyline about a killer on the loose. And the final scene will stay with you for a long time.
1. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Haunting … Picnic at Hanging Rock. Photograph: Cinetext/Atlantic/Allstar
I’ve written about why I rate Picnic so highly as a horror film, and I’m hardly alone. It’s a glorious period piece but also trashy. It’s explosively experimental, unique, and unsettling in a difficult way to deconstruct or shake off. This adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel contains fascinating and specific characters. No girl is “the pretty one”. They are all people. And the ensemble cast is operating at a very high level. Director Peter Weir’s use of film language is of equal importance, such as the scene when the girls first disappear. There are sudden zooms, loud sound effects, overbearing music, and screams with reverb. Weir knows when to risk and when to hold back. Languid, haunted sequences follow moments of excess. It’s both a story about traumatic events and what lingers afterward.