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AACTA Film Fest | Australia's Women Horror Filmmakers

Article by film critic, author and academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

As attention in recent years within Australia and internationally has focused on the challenges women filmmakers often face in what is an unambiguously male-dominated industry, the horror genre has perhaps surprisingly proven a curious point of mainstream and critical interest. Most recently, Donna McRae’s feature LOST GULLY ROAD has been announced as a feature film in competition for the 8th AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel (and a contender for the inaugural AACTA Award for Best Indie Film), but since 2014 one Australian film in particular rendered such an achievement for a woman-directed horror film a little less unexpected than it might have been previously. It was that year, of course, that Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK took the world by storm, winning a slew of AACTA Awards and sweeping high-profile genre awards such as the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards.

With more recent women-directed horror films such as RAW (Julia Ducournau, 2016) and the 2017 horror anthology XX by Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Roxanne Benjamin and Jovanka Vuckovic coming to mainstream attention, the idea of women making horror movies for many critics is still framed, almost instinctively, as an emerging movement. Despite women filmmakers long turning to the genre in a variety of ways, all too often listicles of the same small handful of films appear, all implying an unasked question: ‘Wow! Did you know women can make horror movies?!’.

Film history, of course, renders such attitudes ignorant at best, and emphatically sexist at worst. Pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM in 1913, and despite facing industrial biases that far too often kept women away from directing more generally, horror has long attracted women filmmakers. From British filmmaker Wendy Toye’s segment THE PICTURE in the 1955 anthology THREE CASES OF MURDER to ground-breakers like Stephanie Rothman, Barbara Peeters and Amy Holden Jones who made a number of iconic horror movies for cult producer Roger Corman in the 1970s and 1980s, there is a long history of women-directed horror film.

In Australia, women’s horror filmmaking has its own fascinating story, with genre highlights including Ann Turner’s CELIA (1989), Tracey Moffatt’s BEDEVIL (1993), and significant work in the genre by stalwart television director Catherine Miller including the TV movie 13 GANTRY ROW (1998) and the horror-comedy MUMBO JUMBO (1999).

McRae’s LOST GULLY ROAD is thus not only part of a long, rich and often overlooked heritage of women’s genre filmmaking, but also flags a significant highlight in the current explosion of women’s work in horror in this country especially over recent years. While Australian women directors were busy making their own indie horror films beforehand – a notable highlight being Kate Glover's SLAUGHTERED (2010) – it was the creation of Hobart’s now-legendary Stranger With My Face International Film Festival by filmmakers and artists Rebecca Thomson and Briony Kidd in 2012 that activated a vibrant network of creatives interested in the genre. This network includes McRae – whose debut feature JOHNNY GHOST played at the festival in 2013 – as well as other emerging and established indie filmmakers whose work has received national and international attention, including Isabel Peppard, Mia’Kate Russell and Heidi Lee Douglas.

It is within this broader context that LOST GULLY ROAD is not just an achievement for McRae herself as one of the country’s most determined and productive indie genre filmmakers, but stands as a testament to the refusal of many women to budge from territory traditionally deemed to be a supposed ‘boys club’. These questions of gender and power form the basis of LOST GULLY ROAD itself, which utilises the codes and conventions of the genre to present a slow-burning and ultimately harrowing interrogation of a young woman’s experience of gendered violence in a haunted house in the beautiful yet isolated Dandenong Ranges.

Marked by lush cinematography, shrewd editing and a powerful performance in the lead role by Adele Perovic, it is McRae’s confident, focused direction that pulls it all together in one of the year’s most surprising genre highlights. McRae’s fury at a number of high-profile sexual assaults and murders of women in Melbourne over recent years inspired her to use the genre as a metaphoric space to tease out questions around the ubiquity and invisibility of threats women face every day as they simply try to go about their business.

This ability to bridge real-world issues with the familiar tropes of the genre marks some of the most beloved horror films ever made, from George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1969) and its powerful reflections on the American Civil Rights movement to Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and its vicious critique on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Through horror, women filmmakers have long found a space to voice their thoughts on the perilous and often traumatising world we live in. That we are only starting to take note of the work of women in this genre doesn’t mean they are new to it: it means it’s time we start paying serious attention to the legacy of the pioneers working in the genre who came long before them.

 

LOST GULLY ROAD was screened in cinema in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane during September 2018 as part of AACTA Film Fest. The film will be available for members to watch online via AACTA TV until 11 October 2018.

For your complete guide to the feature films competing for a nomination for the 2018 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Film Fest Guide here (6MB).

 

Follow Alexandra on Twitter.

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