American and Australian horror films have reimagined rural landscapes as places of malevolence and dread
By Dean Bertram
A cultural sea change swept over American and Australian cinema in the early 1970s. The wild but defining rural spaces of both countries had long been the touchstones of their respective national identities. In his formative 1893 paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” US historian Frederick Jackson Turner posited:
“To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends, that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom — these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”
Across the Pacific, a national identity that placed a similar emphasis on the “bush” experience was being cemented by writers like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson in the pages of The Bulletin — “The Bushman’s Bible.” Indeed, some 60 years later, in The Australian Legend, Russel Ward recognised the late 19th century as when “Australians generally became actively conscious, not to say self-conscious, of the distinctive ‘bush’ ethos, and of its value as an expression and symbol of nationalism.”
The formulation of these rural-centric nationalisms coincided with the birth of cinema, and their impact on both countries’ filmmaking was unmistakable. Just as the Western was a dominant genre in American cinema — arguably the American genre — from the medium’s birth, so too are the first several decades of Australian film history replete with a rich assortment of tales of the bush, from the country’s first two feature films The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) and Eureka Stockade (1907); through the twice remade and sequel-spawning rural comedy On Our Selection (1920, 1932, 1995); to a string of cattle and sheep station dramas including The Squatter’s Daughter (1910, remade 1933), The Overlanders (1946), and The Phantom Stockman (1953). Both national cinemas expressed similar themes: rural life was tough and often hazardous, but it built the kind of strong character that helped the good guys prevail. In so doing, these films continued to bolster the original narratives from which they drew inspiration.
However, as the twentieth century progressed, rural tropes became increasingly distant from the day-to-day realities of most citizens in either nation. The frontier ethos and bush ethos were formalised when the majority of Americans and Australians still lived on rural properties or in small country towns. But by 1970, only 26 per cent of the US population, and just shy of 15 per cent of the Australian, could be categorised as rural. Filmmakers in both countries began to look at such places through a less idealised, and often hostile, lens. Their camera’s gaze moved from traditional rural heroes and heroines, capable of dealing with the harsh environment in which they existed, to urban protagonists existentially menaced not just by a hostile geography but by the rural antagonists who dwelt therein. The once familiar landscapes which had defined national character were transformed into alien outlands of malevolence and dread.
American horror films of the period in particular re-imagined rural geographies and inhabitants as inimical to urban outsiders. The rural antagonists of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Deliverance (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) are variously portrayed as murderers, cannibals, and rapists. It’s also worth noting the concurrent slew of revisionist Westerns that inverted the formulaic moralities and histories of the genre and the frontier, including The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973), and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976). Both contemporary and historical genre films were chipping away at popular conceptions of the American frontier and rural decency. The “New Wave” of Australian cinema followed a similar trajectory. Wake in Fright (1971), Night of Fear (1972), The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Long Weekend (1978), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and Mad Max (1979), all eschewed the traditional bush ethos, and instead transformed its sacred geography into one ripe with death and degeneracy.
Rural settings have remained a staple of both nations’ horror cinema until the present day. American titles like Friday the 13th (1980), Evil Dead (1981), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and House of 1000 Corpses (2003) along with their sequels, remakes, knock-offs, and hundreds of other “cabin in the woods”–type movies, have been a staple of the American screen for almost half a century. Australia’s less prolific cinematic output has nonetheless continued to release dozens of horror films set in the outback, including Road Games (1981), Razorback (1984), Rogue (2007), The Horseman (2008), and Dying Breed (2008).
The Australian exemplar is of course Wolf Creek (2005), and the recently released sequel Wolf Creek 2 (2013). Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to which its similar cinéma vérité style and shocking depictions of violence often attracts comparison, Wolf Creek was marketed as being based on true events. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre — along with Psycho (1960) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) — was inspired by Ed Gein, the rural Wisconsin serial killer. Gein’s predilection for grave robbing, cannibalism, wearing the skin of his female victims, and fashioning human body parts into furniture was blood-splattered grist for the horror filmmaking mill. He was a real life embodiment of the rural terrors that would inundate American cinema screens for decades to follow. Wolf Creek drew similar inspiration from serial killer Ivan Malat, and the Peter Falconio murder. These highly publicised criminal cases acted as cautionary tales on the dangers of travelling in the Australian outback and buttressed the types of fears expressed in post-1960s Australian cinema.
Wolf Creek’s serial killer, Mick Taylor, is played with unsettling menace by Australian screen mainstay John Jarratt. Taylor is the dark reflection of heroic bushmen characters immortalised on Australian celluloid by homegrown stars from Chips Rafferty through Paul Hogan to Hugh Jackman. Both Wolf Creek films are overtly conscious of their subversion of this archetype. They deliver self-referential nods to the audience even as they deliver their savage and satirical blows.
In the first film, Mick Taylor appropriates Mick “Crocodile” Dundee’s most famous catchphrase “that’s not a knife,” just before slicing off a screaming backpacker’s fingers and severing her spinal cord. In the sequel, Taylor introduces himself to another unlucky tourist as “Mick Taylor... pig hunter and general outback legend.” Because the audience has seen what Taylor is capable of, a sense of dread is evoked even by the film’s references to traditionally benign or humorous Australian motifs. One of Wolf Creek 2’s cleverest moments emerges when Taylor’s British captive tries to placate the outback killer with a rendition of the well-worn “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport.” Even Australian audiences momentarily forget the song’s once comical last verse. Mick soon reminds us though, cutting his captive off mid chorus, and blurting out the song’s final lines. Coming from his mouth, they resonate a sinister meaning:
“Tan me hide when I’m dead Fred,
Tan me hide when I’m dead.
So we tanned his hide when he died Clyde,
And that’s it hangin’ on the shed.”
Taylor’s nativism and xenophobia — the ugly side of the bush spirit — is demonstrated through his aggressive targeting of international backpackers: “foreign bastards” and “noxious bloody weeds” as he describes them. Moreover, Taylor is presented as being self aware of the very type of rural vs. urban and wilderness vs. civilisation themes that have become mainstays of both the American and Australian horror genre. Filled with malicious superiority he tells his most recent urban captive: “In this world there’s people like me and people like you. And people like me eat people like you for breakfast.” Indeed, the film’s British outsider — a history major, played by Australian actor Ryan Corr — like other civilised British protagonists in earlier Australian horror classics (Gary Bond in Wake in Fright and Dominic Guard in Picnic at Hanging Rock) is overwhelmed by the brutality of the outback. The bush’s inhabitants, mysteries, and horrors present challenges beyond the physical and psychic traits developed in an urban and civilised life.
I recently asked Aaron Sterns, writer of Wolf Creek 2 for his opinion on the central thesis of this piece, and if he and director/co-writer Greg McLean were conscious of the historical change in cinematic depictions of the Australian bush while writing their film. “You’re probably right that there was a shift in the depiction of the outback/bush in film in the 70s,” Sterns said. “I’m thinking Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock, etc., which were very influential on us.” However, he also suggests:
“The fear or distrust of the bush has always been endemic in Australian culture. I’m particularly thinking of early Australian gothic stories such as Barbara Baynton’s The Chosen Vessel and Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife, and the artists of the Heidelberg School ([Frederick] McCubbin in particular, who would often depict small figures in the malevolent or inhospitable landscape, lost children, etc.). Early explorers often died crossing our land, the first settlers experienced grief and heartbreak, and although there might have been a transition period when people no longer survived off the land as much, we have always gravitated toward the ‘safety’ of the cities in Australia. Wolf Creek certainly taps into that ... For me, being out of place in the outback is central to the Australian experience, and being a city boy is something I’ve always felt (having lived in the country too, and never feeling entirely comfortable). Mick’s a personification of the potential threat of the landscape, but then so is the tramp in The Chosen Vessel, and the snake in The Drover’s Wife. Maybe we’re just tapping into those early stories.”
In her 2013 book, The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness, Bernice M. Murphy argues a similar position in regards to American cinema: that rural horror films belong to an older cultural strain. According to Murphy, this tradition reaches back through American Gothic writers like Charles Brockden Brown and Nathaniel Hawthorne to the savage realities faced by European settlers on the frontier.
While darker byways of both countries’ formative narratives may well have long existed, post-1960s cinema drove such fear-laden tales to the cultural forefront. A generation of new, predominantly urban movie-goers would vicariously experience the backwoods and the outback, the frontier and the bush, as landscapes of nightmare and death rather than struggle and triumph.
This revisionist interpretation is no more accurate than the traditional. But as always, cinematic depictions say more about the preconceptions of filmmakers, and the cultures in which they create, than the realties of rural life, past or present. I’m reminded of another quote from Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential paper: “At the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes or perish...” Like the hapless victims in rural horror movies, we are soft from civilisation’s modern amenities. Those travails of frontier or bush, met by our forebears, would likely spell our demise. And while we might not like to admit it, these films whisper in unintended allegories that it is not our national ethos that has failed, but rather our ability to maintain its rigorous demands.
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