'... unlikely to be endorsed by Australian tourist commission'
(Leonard Maltin's closing sentence in his review of Wake in Fright
[Kotcheff, 1971] (1))
THERE IS A PECULIAR PRESENCE in the catalogue of Australian feature films, sitting in the shadow of the highly visible and culturally laudable success stories. Tending towards the eccentric, and occasionally perverse, this presence has received attention from only a handful of film theorists and cinephiles. It is the small, yet consistent flow of malevolence and disorder that is never far from the surface in Australian productions. It appears in some instances as an entire feature film, and in others as a single scene, demonstrating tendencies that resonate indiscriminately throughout the entire body of Australian Cinema. Not even the commercially oriented, high-profile and high-budget production is guaranteed to emerge untouched. It is this 'presence', this off-centre, almost intangible element of sinister peculiarity in Australian productions that has been described by theorists as 'Australian Gothic'.
It is reasonable to expect that such a seemingly appropriate title would have an equally appropriate body of theoretical work behind it. After all, a word with a strong cultural presence in history, architecture, literature and film would seem to demand attention in this context. However, when placing what has been written about the subject under closer scrutiny, 'Australian Gothic' appears to be an almost arbitrary title. The theoretical engagements that exist, while providing some details of the relationships between particular films and aspects of the traditional Gothic novels of the early eighteenth century, seem somewhat inadequate. In this article, we will revisit some of the texts that are generally regarded as Australian Gothic, adding our interpretation of their significance, in order to demonstrate the new perspectives our position offers.
Before proceeding, it is important to place some of what follows in context. As will be clear from the outset, we engage with genre on different levels. As such, it is helpful to envisage this project as occupying territory somewhere along a 'continuum' of theoretical approaches to genre in film. Our project is situated somewhere between the 'practical', economic, and industry-based concepts of genre, and the more abstract theoretical models, such as those offered by disciplines like philosophy and literary theory. Our intention is to conduct the following argument with an awareness of, and sensitivity towards these very different perspectives on the nature of genre. In the broadest of terms, this paper seeks to extend and modify existing explanations of Australian Gothic Cinema, as a kind of film-making in Australia, while not treating genre as an immutable apparatus of categorical differentiation.
Even a cursory consideration of the term 'Gothic' illuminates an array of cliches. We might reasonably imagine tales of the ruined castle or haunted house, or be reminded of stories about 'undead' monsters and repressed sexuality. Demonstrably, 'Gothic' is a word with a broad range of cultural literacies. Accordingly, one might expect that Australian Gothic Cinema is a cultural entity that would be clearly intersected by these literacies. This is, however, not entirely the case. A somewhat peculiar collection of Australian films has been retrospectively gathered under the umbrella of 'Australian Gothic', while bearing little apparent similarity to those texts more commonly held as indicative of the Gothic aesthetic. Although a well-established style in literature and popular culture, the Gothic presence in Australian Cinema is not 'typical', containing very few (if any) examples of such cliches.
Heidi Kaye offers a useful perspective on the history of Gothic film, prefacing her investigation by remarking that Gothic film is inherently difficult to explain, as 'Gothic elements have crept into filmic genres from science fiction to film noir and from thriller to comedy'. …