In the streaming world, the dawn of Halloween means an influx of spooky content arriving on major platforms. Take ‘Netflix and Chills’, with new titles that include vampire thriller Night Teeth and the WWE-themed horror Escape the Undertaker, or Disney+’s launch of Muppets Haunted Mansion, or Stan stocking up on the Saw and Nightmare On Elm Street films.
The streaming services all make it so easy: switch on your teev or open up your laptop and voilà – all this gnarly content is instantly available. This Halloween, why not challenge yourself and instead of watching those big marquee titles from the major providers, show some deranged national pride and seek out obscure Australian gems?
To start you off, here are five wildly weird, locally produced scary movies you probably never knew existed. You may not find them on the major streaming platforms – instead try your antiques store, on the same shelf as a monkey’s paw and a human heart preserved in a jaw of formaldehyde.
Horror fans are well accustomed to villains being evil yokels, ravenous creatures and even murderous clowns. They are less familiar with antagonists being Mr. Whippy vans. Yes, such a villain exists – in a film called Snapshot (released in America under the brand-hijacking title The Day After Halloween). It’s tempting to describe Simon Wincer’s Ozploitation pic as “notorious”, though that would imply that more than a couple of people remember it.
Sigrid Thornton plays 19-year-old Angie, who is stalked and tormented by the aforementioned ice cream-wielding ghoul after she poses in a topless photo shoot. The first time we see the van there are tingles of scary music on the soundtrack, but nothing comes of it. But later it’s hell on desert-delivering wheels, the once-innocuous chimes of Mr. Whippy music becoming a harbinger of doom.
The driver of the vehicle is Angie’s creepy ex-boyfriend Daryl (Vincent Gil), meaning the van is not demonically possessed by the ghost of an angry child who ordered two scoops and received one. It wouldn’t be surprising if it were, though, given the loose standards of this schlocky film and the general wildness of the Ozploitation genre. Low-rent and lacking in suspense, this very odd film nevertheless conjures a strangely interesting dread-induced atmosphere. Wincer went on to make bigger-budget Hollywood movies including 1996’s The Phantom.
Howling III (1987)
In an early scene in Philippe Mora’s gooey ’80s creature feature, the great Australian actor Barry Otto – playing anthropologist Harry Beckmeyer – informs the US President that werewolves actually exist, and have been hiding out Down Under all this time. The Prez is unconvinced even by photographic evidence, responding: “Natural freaks are born all the time… this doesn’t prove anything. Do the Soviets know we’re into this crap?”
It is therefore up to Harry to deliver irrefutable proof of the existence of true-blue lycanthropes. The ensuing narrative involves the production of a movie-within-a-movie, Shape Shifters Part 8, starring an attractive werewolf named Jerboa (Imogen Annesley) who is hired by a lofty-sounding film director with delusions of grandeur. After being hit by a car, Jerboa is taken to hospital, where the staff are intrigued to discover she has a, shall we say, genetically strange makeup, including a marsupial’s pouch.
Oh: and she’s pregnant. This leads to a colossally weird and icky birth sequence and the emergence of a cute lil wolfy bub. Body fluids fly every which way, oozing out of handmade prosthetics that have a tactile, old-school quality. Bestowing upon this film the title of Australia’s ultimate werewolf movie wouldn’t be saying much, given the genre is virtually unexplored in our national cinema, but credit where credit is due: it’s an accurate description and (thank god) there has never been another movie like Howling III.
Red Christmas (2016)
Red Christmas was always going to be remembered due to its gory, outré premise and its appeal as an exercise in “I can’t believe they went there.” Writer/director Craig Anderson’s 2016 feature is just your average, garden variety film about an aborted foetus that – in Anderson’s own words – “survives its abortion, grows up and kills its family.” Phrases such as “you’ve never seen a movie like this before” are overused in film reviewing, but, trust me, you’ve never seen a film like this before.
A mysterious creepy man garbed in a large black robe, his face bandaged and obscured, arrives unannounced on Christmas day at the house of Diane (legendary scream queen Dee Wallace) and her family. He is Cletus, the aforementioned aborted foetus who, two decades ago, survived the procedure, and has grown up to become a distinguished member of society – and by that we mean an ultra freaky axe-wielding psychopath.
Red Christmas could be interpreted as a strange political commentary for the pro-life crowd. In order to extract that message pro-lifers would, of course, have to sit through the film, which requires a strong stomach but is surprisingly well-made, featuring bold giallo-esque Christmas lighting – with thick, gluggy hues of red and green – and strong performances from Wallace and Gerard O’Dwyer (an actor who has Down Syndrome). A fine companion piece is the entertaining documentary Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare, detailing how Anderson got the film off the ground and managed a tumultuous production.
The Horseman (2008)
Writer/director Steven Kastrissios’s tight, hardboiled film about a pest inspector pursuing violent retribution plays like a Liam Neeson revenge movie on steroids, opting for uncomfortable realism over neat plotting and snappy one-liners. Text emblazoned on the cover of the DVD accurately describes the emotional tone of the experience and the motivation of the protagonist: “He can’t bring his daughter back… but he can send her killers to HELL.”
Spurring Christian (Peter Marshall) into action is the death-by-overdose of his daughter, found deceased in a laneway. He also discovers a VHS snuff film featuring her, which triggers a plotline reminiscent of Joel Schumacher’s thriller 8mm, where the protagonist enters the seedy underbelly of the adult entertainment industry. Christian tracks down various parties and gives them the long kiss goodnight through various gnarly means – some involving creative application of his pest extermination equipment.
Peter Marshall’s painfully morose performance conveys a man at the end of his tether, but whose life now has a clear, chilling purpose. Kastrissios maintains an airtight atmosphere, scaling back the colour scheme and tingeing the frame in a blueish-grey veneer, adding an extra layer of coldness to an already chilling experience. Made on a shoestring budget, The Horseman demonstrates seriously impressive frugality and resourcefulness.
Houseboat Horror (1989)
Every national cinema deserves its own Plan 9 From Outer Space: a movie that’s enjoyable because it is utterly terrible. Directors Ollie Martin and Kendal Flanagan’s made-for-video 1989 film occupies a legendary place in Australian film history as our ultimate example of ‘so bad it’s good’, with, like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, performances so laughably atrocious it is hard to believe they could have been delivered earnestly.
A group of filmmakers and musicians travel to the sticks (a place called Lake Infinity) to make a music video, only to be interrupted by a pasty-faced, murderous, machete-wielding freak who looks like a reject from the set of The Hills Have Eyes. Every once in a while, highly dramatic music announces this yeti-like man’s arrival, prompting a range of badly executed death scenes. Some involve his machete, though there are variations: a harpoon in the guts here, impalement by a piece of wood there.
Houseboat Horror has uniformly hideous production values but, importantly, it has a pretty good energy, which helps to taper over countless inadequacies. Midnight movie fans partial to schlock and splatter will continue to return to it, preferably with a few beers at hand, or at public screenings featuring live commentary mocking the film in real time.