Australia’s horror filmmakers aren’t pulling any punches – and it’s paying off

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Some of the scariest Australian horror movies are spun from true stories, such as serial killer Ivan Milat stalking tourists in the outback the inspiration for Wolf Creek.

Director Nick Kozakis’ sold-out Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) hit Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism similarly bloodies the waters of fact and fiction, depicting a startling story of religious fervour gone horribly wrong.

Australian director Nick Kozakis’ Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism blurs the line between truth and fiction.

More intimate than the late William Friedkin’s head-spinning masterpiece The Exorcist, it nevertheless filled ACMI’s biggest cinema twice over after debuting at the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans.

“Premiering the film at a festival like Overlook was daunting because it’s attended by dedicated horror fans, and Godless isn’t your typical exorcism film,” Kozakis says. “But they were so warm and welcoming that I genuinely believe the buzz generated from that … has opened up avenues in Australia and globally.”

Success is sweeter for the hurdles overcome. “It was through sheer determination that we got Godless up as a labour of love through Melbourne’s many lockdowns,” he adds. “We didn’t even consider government funding.”

Australian horror movies have enjoyed cyclical success since the ’70s heyday of Wake in Fright and Picnic at Hanging Rock, and it seems the genre again having a moment.

Monolith centres on a podcaster who may or may not have uncovered an alien invasion.

Many of MIFF’s Australian horror movies are sold out. Several, such as Godless, have captivated overseas viewers.

“Aussie horror filmmakers don’t pull punches, and that probably comes from the days of Ozploitation films like Turkey Shoot, Patrick and Mad Max, all produced outside of the studio system in an era where we could mostly do whatever we wanted,” Kozakis says. “We grew up on those stories, and it feels like that’s permeated our filmmaking sensibilities, which really resonates with international audiences.

“Our country is isolated with a harrowing past that has been explored masterfully,” says film critic, broadcaster and Cinemaniacs board member Sally Christie. “But what I truly love about Australian horror is how our films consistently redefine the genre, moving beyond the outback and meaningfully exploring current discourses like gender politics and class inequality.”

Director Matt Vesely’s MIFF highlight Monolith, supported by the South Australian Film Corporation and Adelaide Film Festival’s Film Lab: New Voices initiative, is another unique MIFF offering, casting Australian actor Lily Sullivan (Evil Dead Rise) as a podcaster who may or may not uncover an alien invasion.

“Very early on, we identified this idea, with producer Bettina Hamilton and writer Lucy Campbell, of what if we could do an alien invasion story with one person?” Vesely says. “Can we sustain that even though it’s largely dialogue? Lily proved we could. Alien is my favourite horror film, and she’s my Ripley.”

MIFF programmer Kate Fitzpatrick, an avowed horror fan, says it’s heartening how many horror movies excelling at MIFF are independently made.

A buck’s party spins out of control in the psychological thriller Birdeater, which screens at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.

Late Night With the Devil has had such a strong response and was made on a very small budget,” she says. “Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism is another one that surprised me. It builds to such a shocking, unnerving climax and has so much to say about patriarchal restraints on women and the legacy of trauma. They’re just really smart, and audiences respond to that.”

Dr Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, an adjunct professor at Deakin University and an internationally acclaimed film critic, says Australian horror’s current moment stands on the shoulders of giants. “We wouldn’t be having this moment if it wasn’t for pioneering films like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Natalie Erika James’ Relic,” she says.

The spread of tone, budget and form in MIFF’s horror offering is exciting and Heller-Nicholas hopes these filmmakers will continue to be championed by home audiences. “We have a nasty habit here of not valuing horror movies until we are almost given permission by being validated overseas first,” she says. “Every single filmmaker who has made a horror movie in this country has had to fight for it, and it just so happens that right now we’re seeing that fight pay off for a number of amazing movies all at once.”

Nick Kozakis (Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism), Colin and Cameron Cairnes (Late Night With the Devil) and Jack Clark and Jim Weir (Birdeater) will join host Sally Christie for a free MIFF talk Something in the Water: New Australian Horror at the Wheeler Centre on Saturday, August 19.

The full program for the Melbourne International Film Festival is out now. Details: The Age is a festival media partner.

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