Set in Melbourne’s Vietnamese-Australian community during the Hungry Ghost Festival, a traditional Buddhist/Taoist event held annually in many countries across the world, SBS’ new series Hungry Ghosts views supernatural genre elements through the prism of a cultural study.
The word “study” sounds a little dry given the show’s splatterific scary elements, which, by the end of the first episode, include such uplifting sights as a decaying skeleton and one poor sod bleeding from the eyes. There’s also the show’s ordinary, day-to-day lines of dialogue such as “the gates of hell are open!”
But it’s true. The study bit – and maybe, yeah, the gates of hell bit, too. The series (which kicks off August 24) is deeply connected to the Vietnamese-Australian community across its entire four-episode arc. This gives it a compelling extra layer in addition to all that hooey about curses, tombs and an apparition that belches toxic supernatural fumes from its mouth. This makes sense when you see it. Sort of.
The series joins a recent trend of homegrown supernatural TV series, produced in the last handful of years by an array of local platforms and broadcasters including the ABC, Stan, Netflix Australia, Foxtel, and now SBS. In addition to the list below, other recent series have had a whiff of the supernatural rather than being explicitly supernatural affairs (such as Lambs Of God, The Gloaming and the rebooted Picnic At Hanging Rock).
But here I’ve focused on six bona fide supernatural productions, with their freaky-deaky goings-on and constant inferences of the otherworldly. Two of them are good, two of them are OK, one of them is great, and the other is cringe-worthy. Let’s get the bad one out of the way first.
Tidelands (Netflix, 2018)
Yeck. Is this thing over yet? Those are the first words that spring to my mind in relation to Netflix’s first Australian original series, despite me having suffered through it all the way back in December 2018.
Created by Stephen M. Irwin, the show combines small town Australianisms with half-baked Greek mythology. It is set in a fishing village called Orphelin Bay, which is populated by beach babes and hunks – some of whom are also half-human, half-sirens known as Tidelanders.
An unnecessarily scrambled plotline involves the story of an arsonist, Cal (Charlotte Best), leaving prison and returning home to the Bay. In this picturesque location, supernatural goings-on are run by sorceress-like leader Adrielle (Elsa Pataky), who is searching for something of great magical significance. Like most of the cast she resembles a model from a soft drink commercial who stumbled onto the wrong soundstage. Cursed with lacklustre dialogue and soap opera situations, Tidelands has plenty of snogging but little intrigue.
Glitch Season 1 & 2 (ABC, 2015 and 2017)
The second season of ABC’s drama about zombie-like characters who rise from the grave in a small town doesn’t live up to the quality of the first. Glitch’s debut season also dips towards the end, as it becomes clear that while the writers do a good job introducing various mysteries (including the big one: how and why are these people coming back from the dead?), they are less adept at the more difficult task of offering satisfying resolutions. And like Tidelands, the drama spills into the realm of soap opera – albeit with an arty upper-crust veneer.
That veneer is clear in the way Glitch producers discouraged the ‘Z’ word (“zombie”) in favour of fancier turns of phrase such as “resurrection drama”. Patrick Brammall plays a cop who among other things must deal with the return of his wife (Emma Booth), given she is one of the zombies – erm, one of the resurrected – in question. That relationship leads to some, shall we say, interesting moments, including a surprisingly classy depiction of necrophilia. You read that right.
Bloom Season 1 & 2 (Stan, 2018 and 2020)
I’m yet to entirely make up my mind about Stan’s ambitious spin on the old fountain of youth narrative, about characters in a small Victorian town (another country town!) who consume magical youth-replenishing berries that appear in the wake of a biblical-type flood. Bloom is atmospheric and cerebral, with handsome light-filled photography and several fine performances – including from Phoebe Tonkin, who is a very strong presence as a younger version of an Alzheimer’s-suffering character played by Jacki Weaver.
On the other hand, the plot has a frustratingly drifting quality, feeding into an experience that feels more than a little airy and sometimes pretentious. The vibe is a slow-moving art film stretched over two seasons. The scope of the series accommodates interesting perspectives, including how powerful vested interests such as churches and biomedical companies might respond to the aforementioned, age-reversing ingredient.
Hungry Ghosts (SBS, 2020)
Early in the first episode of SBS’ new series, a tomb in Vietnam is accidentally opened, unwittingly freeing an evil spirit on the eve of the Hungry Ghost Festival. This grisly spooky thing drifts all the way over to Australia – presumably ignoring quarantine regulation – and haunts a bunch of people, including the family of aspiring chef May Le (Catherine Văn-Davies). Side characters include a skeptical GP (Ryan Corr) and a photographer (Bryan Brown) who captured photos of the Vietnam War. Like in the recent Australian film Hearts And Bones, members of the Vietnamese community object to those war photographs being displayed in an upcoming exhibition.
There is nothing remarkable or revolutionary about Hungry Ghosts, and the finale is a little flat, but its cultural elements elevate it above boilerplate genre fare. Implicit in director Shawn Seet’s approach is a desire not just to thrill audiences, but to inform them about the Vietnamese-Australian community, as well as to contemplate (in a kooky but not ineffective way) war-related PTSD. Also, of course, there’s decaying skeletons and blood coming out of someone’s eyes.
Cleverman Season 1 & 2 (ABC, 2016 and 2017)
In this instance the descriptor “supernatural” could be substituted for “superpowers”, given Cleverman’s status as the first Indigenous Australian superhero series. The second season marked a substantial reduction in quality, maxing out political allegories that were already a little heavy-handed. But the first arrived like a bolt from the blue, presenting a very different kind of hero in Koen (played with energy and verve by Hunter Page-Lochard). Initially, the protagonist is a Han Solo-esque scammer, but his moral compass develops alongside his supernatural powers.
Created by Ryan Griffen, the series is set in a dystopian world milked for its potential for metaphor. Vilified people known as Hairies live in a District 9-like shantytown and speak Gumbaynggirr, an Indigenous language from Australia’s east coast. Like Hungry Ghosts, Cleverman combines familiar genre elements with a degree of cultural investigation. The interpersonal relationships are thoughtfully balanced and the drama is fast-paced.
The Kettering Incident (Foxtel, 2016)
Creator and writer Vicki Madden has a thing for mist, lathering it across the frame in several of her productions (including the recent The Gloaming). The Kettering Incident is based in nippy Tasmania, in a small town with gothic vibes and notes of Top Of The Lake and Twin Peaks. The premise of this darkly beautiful (and, yes, misty) show involves two girls disappearing in the wilderness, in identical circumstances 15 years apart. In the prologue, which takes place in 2000, strange lights appear in the forest before one of the aforementioned disappearances. Is this a good, old-fashioned alien abduction?
Jumping forward to the present day, Elizabeth Debicki plays one of the women whose friends had disappeared. She returns home to discover a war raging between lumbers and ‘greenies’ – as well as something much more twisted. The Kettering Incident is intensely atmospheric, its high-end cinematic look infused with a festering feeling that something – perhaps many things – has gone terribly wrong in its central location. The writing and direction are top-notch, and the central mystery is teased out until the very end. Don’t expect a simple resolution.