(Essay) Is the Australian Gothic a unique genre in Australia’s National Cinema?
Is the Australian Gothic a unique genre in Australian’s National Cinema. How does the use of landscape and themes work to connect with or distinguish it from the American Horror genre.
The Australian Gothic has sparsely been described as a recognised genre of Australian film, most likely because it is not one that is easily defined or classified due to its hybridisation. It is often compared to the American Horror genre due to the adaptation of its conventions, however, it is its blending of Horror constructs with those of period films in the form of Australian art cinema, that can perhaps provide specificity. The thematic commonalties found in the genre of the Australian Gothic are often shared with the American Horror, though the Horror film generally struggles to find symmetry between them. As such, these thematic commonalities will be explored through the critical analysis of the films The Loved Ones (2009) and Rogue (2007), to establish that films often described as Australian Horror exemplify a more Gothic tonality.
The Loved Ones (2009)
This essay will use the aforementioned films in an effort to define the Australian Gothic and concepts of Australian National Cinema. It will then work to show how the Gothic is indeed a form of our National Cinema through genre conventions of landscape and how landscape is utilised to portray isolation amongst other themes. Landscape will subsequently be used to explain how nature is presented as a threat in the Gothic and how that threat ties in with colonialist ideals of the Aboriginal. The second part of this essay will investigate the role of distorted reality and sexual perversion in the Australian Gothic and the influence of Road films on the genre before finally exploring the theme of control over nature and the Othering of Australia.
It can at first be difficult to reason that the Australian Gothic is a form of National Cinema when you consider that during its renaissance, National Cinema was often defined by its “inability or unwillingness” to find resolution (McFarlane, & Mayer, 1992, pg. 61). It could be reasoned that the narrative structure of the Australian Gothic instead works to withhold “information to create narrative strands that will finally be brought together” (McFarlane, & Mayer, 1992, pg. 63). Whilst the Gothic does indeed implement the strategy of narrative stranding, it is not adequate in distinguishing it from our National Cinema.
The Loved Ones is the story of a high school boy, Brent, who struggles to deal with his emotional mother and inner demons after he kills his father in a horrific car crash. He is asked to attend the school dance by the socially awkward and seemingly innocuous Lola, who he politely refuses. Brent’s girlfriend Holly provides him with a chance of rehabilitation, but her efforts are thwarted when a secret admirer, Lola, has her father kidnap him. Lola and her father subject Brent to all manner of atrocities that provide Lola with sadistic entertainment and a date to her very own private school dance. Brent is left fighting for his life and his sanity and must find a way to escape the pathological pair.
Lola and her father serve as the warped and corrupted small town locals that are often present in the Australian Gothic, more significant still, is the fact that The Loved Ones is unquestionably indicative of the narrative stranding found in the Australian Gothic. By the films end, it is revealed that the young man standing in the middle of the road, that lead to Brent’s car accident, was an escapee of Lola’s and that another of Lola’s victims was in fact Holly’s (Brent’s girlfriend) brother who went missing and was never found.
The Australian National cinema is also one that works to recognise our “history and social conditions” (Murray, 1994, pg. 3, 45). The period film is an accepted form of National Cinema, that worked to establish the “fragility and vulnerability” of man in the conceivably dangerous landscape (Moran, & O’Regan, 1989, pg. 105). Graeme Turner supports this descriptor by defining the narrative of Australian National Cinema as that in which humans fail in their plight with the beautiful panorama, ultimately concluding in fatality. This ethos of Australia’s National Cinema is consistent with that of the Australian Gothic.
A key principal of the Australian Gothic is its use of landscape, which is applied not just as setting, but rather to emphasise the theme of isolation. Rogue is more than just a story of a giant crocodile; it is a story of isolation and survival. The story follows a travel writer from Chicago, Pete and his local tour guide Kate, as they embark on a crocodile sighting river cruise with several others. After a pleasant day of seeing the sights, the cruise draws to a close, however, a flare seen off in the distance leads the group into uncharted waters in an effort to rescue the assumed distressed. The group eventually finds the origin of the flares in an overturned boat and it is not long before they find the cause of the accident. A giant crocodile begins to charge at them, forcing them to crash onto the shore of a tiny island. With their motor flooded, the group are left stranded and must find a way to safely cross back over to the mainland before the island is lost in the rising tide and the crocodile makes a meal out of them.
Michael Vartan; an international actor employed only to “improve international marketability” (Moran, & O’Regan, 1985, pg. 236-237), plays the ‘outsider’ character of Pete, both of which are constructs of the Australian Gothic. However, the crucial mechanism to consider here is how the Australian outback in Rogue, is implemented as a scene of isolation; beginning with the small town, moving onto Kingston Gorge and later reduced to a small island soon to be engulfed by the incoming tide. In The Loved Ones, it is the small country town and the vast distances between residences, which are quintessential to the Australian Gothic, which allows Lola and her father to execute their grotesque plans. This eerie and remote Australian landscape indeed works to encapsulate these themes of isolation.
Turcotte argues that the Gothic thematically deals with “isolation, entrapment [and] fear of pursuit”, originating from our colonial ancestry (Turcotte, 1998, pg. 1). Rogue certainly illustrates this point, as the entire narrative is that of a group of people, stranded on a small island, being hunted down by a vicious and territorial crocodile. Likewise, The Loved Ones is centred around Lola and her desperate pursuit of her “Prince”. Any boy she deems to be a “toad” and therefore not worthy of her, she mutilates and detains in the basement of her family home.
The uncanny was described by Freud as an occurrence in which the home becomes unhomely (unheimlich). In The Loved Ones, when Brent declines the seemingly benign Lola’s invitation to the school dance, he is unaware of the gruesome repercussions. In this instance it is quite literally a home which becomes unhomely, but it is important to note that this would not be so easily achieved, if it were not for the isolating landscape in which the house is situated.
Australian Gothic films, often depict home as the Australian landscape. Moran and Vieth state “nature can be dangerous as well as beautiful” (Moran, & Vieth, 2006, pg. 37). This concept is often fundamental to the genre, where the narrative opens with presentations of pristine or normal landscapes before the environment itself or those who dwell within it, inevitably become hostile.
Rogue opens with beautiful and peaceful depictions of the Australian landscape where tranquillity abounds. Our first glimpse of the potential hostility of this landscape comes when a buffalo drinks from the harmonious wetlands unable to detect the impending danger that lurks beneath the surface. By the time it is aware of the crocodile’s malicious intent, it is too late. It is not long after this that Pete steps into a small bar that is covered with imagery of men proudly posing with their kill. On this same wall there is a photo of a 12 year old boy found inside a crocodile. The audience is made to remember this image so that when the tourist board the boat for their crocodile sighting tour, we are reminded that although beautiful, nature here can kill you.
Similarly, the unspoken spirit of the land, that of aboriginal culture, also corresponds to our colonial history. In Rogue, Kate exclaims “Human pollution is one of the greatest threats to the environment here”. This line is in direct reference to Neil and Collin who are depicted as white Australian bogans, or ‘ockers’. This could be read in a colonial sense, that white settlers have left an enduring stain on the land and that our ‘culture’ has polluted that of the indigenous peoples. Turcotte reminds us that historically, white Australians worked to remove aboriginals from this land (Turcotte, 1998, pg. 10). In Rogue, the crocodile can be read metaphorically as an Aboriginal. Neil explains “I’ve heard stories of ‘em, getting territorial, but, people just keep going…us being here… he’s gonna feel as if were movin’ in.”
What is unfortunate about the Australian Gothic is that the indigenous are represented as malevolent ghosts, “haunting the Australian landscape” (Turcotte, 1998, pg. 9-10). This sentiment is demonstrated in Rogue when Neil and Collin joke about hunting ghosts, suggesting that the area may be haunted. One can conclude from this that these ghosts are likely aboriginal as they are considered the spiritual ancestors and custodians of the land and as Kate mentions earlier in the film “[we’re] not really supposed to go through here, this is sacred land”. In fact, the characters do not find themselves in any real danger until they enter Arnhem Land, a scared site of the Australian indigenous.
This notion is solidified in a lot less literal approach when the implication is made that the crocodile is a reincarnation of sorts of the local Aboriginals. This more sinister idea arises when Kate describes crocodiles as “living dinosaurs” that have the ability to learn your routine. This pushes us to remember that Australian Aborigines are considered one of the world’s oldest people and have learned how white Australians operate over the years without necessarily forgetting their indigenous skills. Furthermore, Neil explains to Allen “we are still in its territory and it doesn’t like it” referring to the crocodile that is hunting the group of tourists. This reading is possible because many modern white Australians see the territory as belonging to the Aboriginal people, therefore, one could deduce that the crocodile is actually an Aborigine.
With this in mind, perhaps one could conclude that the blood of White inhabitants was needed to appease the spirits of colonial aboriginals, but as Australia has yet to find a way to way to accommodate their indigenous in their modern society, the crocodile inevitably needed to be killed in order to make a political statement.
Horror is described by Moran & Vieth (Moran, & Vieth, 2006, pg. 105) as “a world…where ‘reality’ is distorted.” This convention is not exclusive to the Horror genre but also extends to the Australian Gothic in a method described by Dermody & Jacka as the normal developing into the grotesque (Dermody, & Jacka, 1988, pg. 51).
The Loved ones is a film that contently sets this up. When we meet Lola for the first time in the school corridor, she seems innocent and perhaps even sweet, not long after though, we see her creepily watching Brent and his girlfriend in a sexual encounter. At first glance, Lola’s family home and her actions within it, seem relatively normal (with the exception of course, that her father has just arrived home with a nearly dead Brent in the back of his ute).
The kitchen, bedroom and living room are indicative of many Australian homes. However, this image of traditional lifestyle is consistently distorted. The dolls in Lola’s room seem ordinary, but as the camera moves from one doll to the other, we begin to see that many of them have been arranged into sexual and exploitive poses. Lola also possesses a scrapbook containing childlike imagery of knights and castles accompanied by magazine cutouts of teen dresses and accessories, but it also contains absurd imagery of the plans she has for Brent and previous victims of her obsession. When Lola’s father presents her with shoes and a dress for her school dance, it seems like a sweet father-daughter moment, until Lola insists that her father stay in the room while she begins to strip down. At the family dinner, which sees Lola, her father and her mother (Bright Eyes) seated around the table, it almost seems like your typical family dinner, if you ignore the fact that the kitchen diner is lit up with a disco ball, that their ‘guest’, Brent is tied up to a chair and that something has been done to Bright Eyes to immobilise her and render her speechless. Finally, when Lola poses for her school dance photo, everything about her sensibility seems normal, however the situation in which it occurs is anything but, particularly as she stands with her ‘dance’ partner who sits beside her bound and essentially gagged.
This morphing of normal and abnormal also expresses itself in a more traditional, American teen flick style. Brent’s friend Jamie takes the local ‘Goth’ girl to the dance. Goth is seen in these ‘prom films’ as the grotesque. The couple also chooses to distance themselves from the social norms of high school by getting drunk and stoned in the car park, listening to heavy rock music and isolating themselves from the actual dance by staying in the car.
Not so obviously, Rogue also plays with the idea of the normal becoming malevolent (Dermody, & Jacka, 1988, pg94). All of the tourists on the boat exhibit normal, socially acceptable qualities, until they are faced with peril. This change in behaviour is first brought to our attention after flares are seen in the distance and it is decided that the group should investigate and see if they can be of assistance. Several of the tourists protest going to help, indicating that it will disrupt their plans or comfort, but it isn’t until they are stranded on the island, that we come to see just how morally corrupt they have become. This is best illustrated when Mary-Ellen ‘freezes’ whilst climbing the rope across the river. Tensions rise and Allen puts four peoples lives at risk through his irrational actions.
Moran & Vieth further describe Horror films as a presentation of “…alienation, sexual deviance, obsession, [and] violence” (Moran, & Vieth, 2006, pg. 106). Again, this is one many Horror conventions adopted by the Australian Gothic in which The Loved Ones is exemplary of. Lola is socially alienated, it is clear that she is one of the unnoticed and unpopular girls of her high school. Her need for sexual attention results in what Jung described as the Electra complex, demonstrated through her undressing in front of her father, her obvious jealousy of Bright Eyes and finally when she dances with her father and lovingly tells him “you’re the prince, that’s why I cant find one I like”.
Horror films often portray a “monster” as someone or something, whether known or unknown, that originally presents itself as friendly, but ultimately becomes a threat to “normality” (Moran & Vieth, 2006, pg. 111).
Lola is certainty introduced as a potentially friendly, even if a somewhat socially awkward girl and whilst this may be true of The Loved Ones, it is a little more difficult to see Rogue in this manner. The crocodile is never portrayed as friendly, nor was the colonial perception of the aboriginals of whom it is assumed it represents. This is perhaps one way to distinguish your traditional Horror film from the Australian Gothic.
Originating from American horror and its subsequent sub-genre of road films is the common inciting incident of a car crash or breakdown in the Australian gothic film. This adopted convention of Gothic films is one implemented by both The Loved Ones and Rogue. The Loved Ones begins with Brent driving a car that he inevitably crashes into a tree. In an effort to escape the aggressive crocodile, the tourists in Rogue end up stranded on an island when their boat crashes on the shore and the motor floods. What is interesting in both of these films is how the traditional ‘car’ crash of road films is intertwined with the dangers of landscape in a Gothic sensibility.
According to Murray, landscape is required to be presented as an environment in which society has acquired control or at least believes to have control, in order to illustrate the paradoxical understanding that our land is one that is “half-tamed yet essentially untamable” (Murray, 1994, pg. 49). At the beginning of Rogue, this societal control is obscurely depicted when Pete orders a coffee at the bar. The bar tender offers him a cappuccino in an effort to demonstrate how civilised the outback has become. But perhaps the more obvious depiction of control over environment in Rogue, comes when Kate assumes that the group will be ok going through Arnhem Land because it looks so similar to an area she lives and works in. Control of nature is also demonstrated in the film when Kate’s tour passes another, which baits a resident crocodile to leap out of the water and feed on cue for the entertainment of tourists. When one of the tourists on her boat asks how often this occurs, Kate jovially answers “everyday at two”. This leads one to believe that Australian’s have learned to control and tame the local habitat. Of course, this is revealed to be a false sense of security when the tour group find themselves hunted by a giant crocodile.
In the case of The Loved Ones, Brent was invariably not paying much attention to his surrounds when he was driving as it was expected to be safe and predictable, an assumption that demonstrates the fact that Australians falsely believe they have control of their environment. Brent later ignores the potential dangers of his environment again through the use of loud music and the effects of drug use, ultimately leading to his kidnapping. Both of these scenarios result in trauma, injury and even death for the respective characters, signifying the dangers that lurk within the Australian landscape.
The Loved Ones (2009)
A convention of the Australian Gothic which has received somewhat less attention is “Othering the Australian” as a means of providing an audience with the opportunity to “laugh at the Australian stereotypes” (O’Regan, 1996, pg. 250). This opportunity presents itself in Rogue when Kate informs the tourists on her cruise that she has one rule; “you have only one chance to complain about the heat and the flies”, reminding the audience that this is an environmental factor that most modern Australians have learned to cope with, but something tourists often struggle with. She later follows this up with a comment about the fact that crocodiles only eat tourists, perpetuating the obscure humour of Australians, that it is only tourists that are stupid enough to encounter danger in the our landscape and wildlife.
It is worth noting, that although the success of Australian Gothic films in both the domestic and international market has varied considerably, its universally relatable narratives and themes coupled with recognisable genre conventions that have been adapted from the American Horror, perhaps make it the most viable of the Australia’s genre films. Whilst it is likely that there will be continued debate whether or not the Australian Gothic is indeed a genre in its own right and not merely an extension of Horror, it is my hope that the arguments presented in this essay, will help to provide some way of identifying what the Australian Gothic is. Though there are substantial similarities of the Australian Gothic with Horror, it is the merging of these genre conventions with the thematic applications of period and art cinema that help to distinguish it.
Furthermore, if the essay has successfully established the Australian Gothic as a genre, then perhaps it can also be concluded that it is an effective representation of Australia’s National Cinema.
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