The essay analyses how the generic conventions of horror have been modified to depict ‘Australianness’ in the film Bait (Kimble Rendall, 2012). I will also discuss the history and rebirth of Australian horror over the past decade, and the problems surrounding the Americanisation of Australian horror films with regard to character types and settings. Furthermore, I will argue that due to the problems inherent with marketing the film for both Australian and foreign audiences, Bait’s sense of Australianness is confused as a result of characterisation, choice of location, and the persistence of clichéd stereotypes.
From 1948 it was illegal to produce a horror film in Australia. The ban was put in place as it was ruled that “Horror films are neither entertaining nor cultural. They cater only for a small minority of the moronic type” (Alexander qtd. in libertus.net). Thankfully, the ban was lifted after twenty years and with it came a resurgence of Australian horror films like and The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir 1974), Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978), and the creature feature Razorback (Russel Mulcahy, 1984). Although, Mark David Ryan says that due to the nation’s cultural policy, “horror films have barely been recognised as an Australian filmmaking tradition” and that the genre has been seen “as an affront to ‘quality’ Australian cinema” (47). Tom O’Regan reflects that “the thriller did not become central to feature film-making definitions until the 1980s” (171).
Australian horror films have experienced resurrection of late with Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005), Undead (Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2003), and Rogue (Greg McLean, 2007). Wolf Creek is Australia’s most successful horror film taking in over $6,000,000 at the national box office (screenaustralia.gov.au) and over $27,000,000 worldwide (boxofficemojo.com). In 2005 it was one of only six films that took over $2,000,000 at the domestic box office (Australian Film Commission). Alexandra Heller-Nichols says the success of Wolf Creek was “not only because of its ‘Australianness’, but because it was also a bloody good horror film… [that] so eloquently captured a truly Australian sensibility” (Fatal Distractions 28). This notion of Australianness is what O’Regan refers to as “the Australian setting, mise-en-scene, [and] actors….” (194), which together help bring a sense of national identity to the film. While John Scott and Dean Biron believe that Wolf Creek began a “trend in the New Australian Cinema towards representing the rural in one of two ways – as a place either of idyll or […] horror” (308), Darclight Films’ Bait adds the local supermarket as another place to fear.
Bait is “the first Singapore-Australian co-production” (Swift, 3D) which was “supported by the Media Development Authority of Singapore” (MDAS). Although the film performed “poorly” in Australia, taking only “$370,000” on its opening weekend (Swift, Bait), it became the “most successful Aussie flick ever released in China” where it took over “AUD$20 million at the box office” (if.com.au). Swift notes that “mainstream-oriented films… haven’t always been popular in Australia but things have changed since the Producer Offset tax rebate was introduced in 2007” (Swift, Director). Ryan says that this “substantial production and educational investment” into local feature films “has had positive impacts for Australian culture, facilitating a large volume of cultural expression contributing to a sense of national identity” (43).
The genre of horror has the ability to show the audience their deepest fears in high definition with Dolby surround sound but without the terrible consequences. In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a massive tsunami; with waves up to thirty meters high, it was “one of the largest tsunamis in recorded human history” (Paris et al). It killed 230,000 people in fourteen different countries. The scenes shown on television were truly horrific. Eighty-five percent of the population of Australia live within fifty kilometers from the coastline (CSIRO), and an event on the same scale as the Boxing Day tsunami on the Eastern coast would devastate the entire country. Millions of people would be displaced; thousands of lives would be lost. In Bait, director Kimble Rendall gives the audience a taste of what might happen should such an event occur.
Bait is set in a beachside town on Queensland’s Gold Coast. After a massive tsunami hits, the busy underground supermarket is filled with water while customers and employees are still trapped inside. Unfortunately, a twelve foot long Great White shark is swept into the supermarket along with the flooding tide. Another shark lurks below in the flooded car park. The cast of Bait is filled with popular, young Australian actors who star alongside Singaporean actors Adrian Pang and Qi Yuwu.
Since the death of the “Croc Hunter,” Steve Irwin, in 2006, there have been many Australian horror films with ‘creatures’ as the antagonist including Black Water (David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki, 2007), which is based on a true story of a savage crocodile attack on Australian tourists in the Northern Territory; and Rogue, which again, set in the Northern Territory, is about a crocodile attack on a group of both local and international tourists. Both films feature trained guides but in both situations, their knowledge is made redundant by the deadly predators. In Black Water, the guide Jim (Ben Oxenbould), who is costumed to look like a Steve Irwin type with blonde shaggy hair, khaki shirt and a XXXX cap, is killed by the crocodile first. The horror aspect of the genre forces the audience to ask the question, if the experienced guide is unable to survive a crocodile attack, then what chance do the rest of us have? In Bait the great white shark, another frequent antagonist in creature horror films, is used again to test the will of the characters. Sharks are often also seen in American horror films and are a cultural fear that is shared with many countries with coastal regions.
One of the most universal conventions of horror is the character type. These overused tropes have been parodied in many films, most notably Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), and The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012). The characters portrayed in many horror films include the dumb blonde, the jock, the geek, the strong-willed female, and the self-doubting hero. Bad guys are generally dim-witted although one may try to redeem themselves after realising their failures. Bait closely adheres to these generic types and makes a few adaptations to give some of the characters a sense of local identity. However, in other characters, their Australian identities have been Americanised in order to appeal to the international market. Even though “‘Australian horror’ — with associated terms ‘Aussie horror’ and ‘horror from Down Under’ — is emerging as a ‘brand’ in the global marketplace” (Ryan 47), it seems Bait is suffering from an identity crisis in relation to its country of origin.
Many of the film’s other characters are from the United States although they are played by well-known Australian actors and some of the accents in the film switch from American to Australian “sometimes, inadvertently, within the one performance” (Siemienowicz). Director Kimble Rendall explains, “It was a directive that came from the American sales company and they said ‘It’s very hard to understand Australian accents and we cannot sell the film. Broad Australian accents don’t work’” (qtd. in Siemienowicz). Ryan also comments on the “challenge for Australian producers to remain competitive in global horror markets” (46).
Some of the sound bite-friendly dialogue in the film has adjusted the local vocabulary to suit a wider audience. For example, Kyle (Lincoln Lewis) tells Rory (Richard Brancatisano) that he has “six feet” (Bait) to climb along the pipes to safety even though Australia adopted the metric system well before these characters would have been born.
Gemma Blackwood describes how the character of the typical Aussie “larrikin or ‘bloke’ has been a resilient one in cultural representations of both the rural and urban Australian male, whether they be rural stockmen, bushrangers, soldiers at Gallipoli or surf lifesavers” (493). The representation of the ‘bloke’ is highly evident in Bait with the overt performance by Damian Wyllie. His character, Kirby, plays up the stereotypical bloke which was “translated and commodified” (Blackwood 493) in the 1980s by the character of Mick Dundee (Paul Hogan). Apparently, Australians were still being represented this way to overseas markets in 2012 despite the “consumer fatigue with the long-lived campaign” (Blackwood 494). Wyllie’s broad Australian accent, that isn’t supposed to sell films, is achieved by nasally stressing the ‘ah’ sounds in the lines like “spark up a barbie and crack open the tartar sauce” (Bait), and other Australian idiomatic phrasing. While on one hand this may be humorous to an international audience, on the other it “may cause irritation” (Siemienowicz) to local audiences. Heller-Nichols believes that with recent Australian horror films, “the choice is between being uber-Australian or anti-Australian,” however, Bait seems to be caught in the middle of the two extremes, resulting in a “gratuitous ‘McAustraliana’” (28).
The character type of the ‘dumb jock’ has been replaced by an Australianised ‘dumb surfer’. Lincoln Lewis’ Kyle seems void of any intelligence which is depicted by his messy blonde hair that sticks up, his tanned, toned body and in use of the moronic interrogative inflection in his speech. Kyle’s girlfriend is another overused horror trope: the ‘dumb blonde.’ The wide-eyed, vapid Heather (Cariba Heine) is from America and resembles a ‘Paris Hilton type’ complete with blonde hair, and the stereotypical dog-in-a-bag. Heather complains more about her shoes being ruined and her dog being thrown into the water than the dead bodies floating around in the car park. Again, this change in the character’s country of origin was done in order to “to make it sell internationally, instead of just making it for Australia” (Rendall qtd. in Siemienowicz). Characters like Heather are a symptom of “the Americanisation of Australian youth culture” (Heller-Nichols, Helpless 29).
Bait deals with the generic conventions regarding race the same way most of the horror films do. In many films, it is usually the white, Caucasian characters who live to tell the tale. In Bait, this trope is perpetuated as Singaporeans, shop owner Jessup (Aidan Pang) and Steven (Qi Yuwu) are killed. After the death of security guard, Colins (Damien Garvey), only the attractive, Caucasians survive the ordeal as if the film was a rudimentary version of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ based on looks and skin colour.
Location-wise, the film is set in Australia but it leaves Australia as soon as the action begins. The opening scene looks like a typical Australian setting reminiscent of 1970s surf culture with an old wagon parked at the beach; the sound of the surf is accompanied by magpies heralding the new day. But within minutes, the film is relegated to the interior of a supermarket, thus dismissing the iconic imagery of the Australian beach. The placement of a pair of thongs on a supermarket shelf may be a means of combating this cultural dissociation.
The film also uses 3D gimmicks in order to induce horror. Blood and body parts are flung straight towards the camera, and overhead shots which feature the shark jumping out of the water baring its teeth. As with many horror films, murky water is used as a filter to conceal the full view of the shark. This is based on the theory utilised by horror director Val Lewton that “less is more… wherein shock effects are replaced by shadows and sounds, with the unseen often proving to be just as chilling as the seen” (TCM.com). O’Regan says this type of effect is generally borne out of “creatively solv[ing] […] production budget limitations” (261).
In Bait, a mixture of quasi-accents and tired stereotypes wash away any remnants of Australianness the film had in the first opening shot. The set of the supermarket is visually nondescript and the action could take place in any town, in any country; there is nothing distinctly Australian about it. The generic conventions of horror are well utilised in the film with the inclusion of gory 3D special effects and adherence to horror theory. However, the film seems to be suffering from a personality disorder not knowing if it is Australian or foreign. While on one hand, the well-known cast are used in an attempt to connect with local audiences; on the other hand, it has pandered to an international audience accustomed to hearing English spoken with an American accent by changing many of the actors’ accents and perpetuating forced stereotypes. Sadly, the essence of Australianness in Bait is distorted through the lenses of foreign funding and want for international appeal.
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