Out later this month, Boys in the Trees is the latest Australian horror film to get attention overseas. There is something particularly menacing about a group of schoolmates and their brand of teen bullying, which comes to the fore over one long Halloween night in the ’90s. The film received a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and has been praised for its evocative camerawork and haunting score. But like some other Australian horror films of recent years, there’s one thing it hasn’t been praised for: its sense of place.
“The very last thing Australian director Nicholas Verso wants to be would appear to be an Australian director,” said David Rooney in the The Hollywood Reporter. “His debut feature, Boys in the Trees, is so thoroughly stripped of local specificity in favor of borrowed American horror tropes and self-consciously cool music-video detours that it lacks an identity of its own.”
Presumably this is meant to be a bad thing. But Australian horror film has long been divided between films seeking to trade on intrinsically Australian elements and those seeking a more international appeal. While the Australian-made but American-accented Saw (and its seemingly endless spin-offs) was a huge part of the horror revival of the early ’00s, the gruelling 1971 outback drama Wake in Fright is where modern Australian horror was born.
Recent critical and commercial hit The Babadook was a horror story that minimised its Australianness, focusing in spare settings on a universal story of a struggling single mother and a sinister storybook. In contrast, Wolf Creek and its various sequels and spin-offs are set in an exaggerated version of the outback where Aussie stereotype Mick Taylor gleefully slaughters tourists.
Thomas Caldwell programs the Next Gen line-up for the Melbourne International Film Festival. In his view Australian films, whether they’re horror or any other genre, often struggle to figure out exactly how Australian they want to be.
“In Australia we often seem a little frightened of being Australian. We tone down specifics because we’re worried they won’t translate internationally, when in fact it’s those unique elements that are interesting to international audiences.”
Embracing the ocker has been the path a lot of Australian horror films have taken over the years, for example the mid-’80s outback terror of Razorback and the recent comedy-horror 100 Bloody Acres. In part that’s been because so many of the basic horror tropes are so generic – the slasher film, the monster movie – that setting them somewhere “quirky”, like Australia, is one way to set your film apart for an international audience.
“I think the big mistake some filmmakers and funding bodies make is trying to make a film that’s as palatable as possible to the biggest audience possible,” says Thomas. “Those people who say, ‘I’m going to make the most mainstream movie ever’ really end up just making something bland that audiences reject.” Recent internationally aimed box-office fizzlers such as Any Questions For Ben?, Kill Me Three Times and Goddess suggest he’s not far off the mark.
That said, any attempt to force locally made films to be “more Australian” is doomed to fail as well, says film and television scriptwriter Lee Zachariah.
“I remember seeing years ago on a Screen Australia funding application form – I’m not sure if they still have it, I’m guessing they probably do – a section headed ‘how does this work reflect Australia?’. The thing is, that comes out naturally. It’s when you try to force it that it becomes artificial and audiences can sense that.
“Sometimes I think filmmakers don’t quite get what’s really universal,” Zachariah says. “They think a neutral accent and a home that could be from anywhere, those are universal. But it’s experiences that are universal, that’s what we need to get right if we want to appeal to a world audience.”
And that’s the catch: the occasional hit aside, the audience for Australian films isn’t big enough to sustain the Australian film industry. If you want to have a hit, especially in a genre like horror, then you have to look overseas.
According to film academic and presenter on Australian film-streaming service Ozflix Rochelle Siemienowicz, it’s the small- to mid-budget genre films – such as Boys in the Trees – we still make in Australia that are increasingly being crowded out of our cinemas by the flood of overseas product.
“In the ’70s there was time for a film to build through word of mouth, which is traditionally the way Australian films have found their audience. These days the sheer quantity of films that have to be pumped through means things have to make an impact quickly, usually on their opening weekend. There just isn’t that time.”
“Anyone who’s read about Australian film has heard many, many times that it’s easier to get your first film made than your second film,” says scriptwriter Lee Zachariah. “That’s because we don’t have a studio system the way America does. If you want a career, you have to try and get overseas attention.”
With opportunities to get a local hit fading, our filmmakers are increasingly forced down one of two paths. Either play up the Australian elements in the hopes of attracting overseas attention through novelty, or try to court American distributors directly by making the kind of film that fits seamlessly into their market. Either you deliver outback slashers, or you go for suburban chills.
According to Thomas it’s simply the way it is today that most of our filmmakers’ career paths lead directly to the United States. “I want to be a lot more idealistic and say there is a place for them here, but the reality is people start off here, and they make their first few features here, and then they go off to America the first chance they get so they can really flex their muscles and make the films they want to make.”
It’s a time-honoured tradition – think of ’70s “new wave” directors such as Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant) and Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and ’90s names such as PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) and Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and more recent figures such as Andrew Dominik (Chopper) and James Wan (Saw) – for filmmakers to shift their careers to Hollywood after making a hit here.
That’s Zachariah’s plan, too. Having written a number of film and television scripts here he’s about to have his first feature film go into production. Originally set in the outback, after getting US funding it has been relocated to America. It’s not his first script to be relocated overseas when funding became available, either.
“That’s where the money is, and that’s where the opportunities are,” he says. “I was just reading about Hitchcock and how excited he was to be going to Hollywood, because they had bigger studios and more money. You go to where the biggest canvas is.”
Boys in the Trees is in cinemas from October 20.