The blasting sounds of GANGgajang’s “Sounds of Then (This Is Australia),” one of many local pop songs that grace the soundtrack of RED BILLABONG, leave us in no doubt as to what country this film derives from. Indeed, Australia has spent the better part of the last decade creating innovative horror flicks that have made the world take notice. Wolf Creek and The Babadook have become international cult hits, while gems like The Tunnel and Lake Mungo impressed with their documentary style. Yet this might be the first domestic horror production to embrace indigenous folklore and the use of CG special effects so fully.
Estranged brothers Nick (Dan Ewing) and Tristan (Tim Pocock) reunite at their old farm in Queensland at the behest of their late grandfather. Deciding on what to do with his substantial tracts of land, Nick questions the wisdom of selling to the shifty Mr. Richards (Felix Williamson). However, when they invite some friends over for a party, they can’t help but feeling that there’s something in the bushland surrounding the house.
RED BILLABONG feels like a bigger film than you’d expect. On the surface, it’s a spin on the ‘spam in a cabin’ archetype, replacing the traditional American lakeside woods with the Australian bush and a billabong. More than a location shift, Sparke infuses Australian culture and legend into every moment of his feature debut. (Ewing even sports a Southern Cross tattoo on his forearm). There’s obvious similarities to its influences, of course, such as a “demonic” possession that’s reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. Yet from the opening scenes, there’s a sense of carefully planned world, and the vague hints at granddad’s research or the local tribes only serve to deepen the mystery. Which is the thing about RED BILLABONG: it’s not just a horror film, but a riddle to be solved within the framework of a typical splatterfest.
Even so, that puzzle does take a while to present itself, and we are well and truly over the halfway point before the horror begins. While we are waiting, Sparke’s team gives us a quality production to look at. Andrew Conder’s photography elevates the surrounds of the Queensland’s Gold Coast to epic levels, and the enthusiastic cast are infectiously watchable. The highly anticipated creature, one of Australia’s first all-CG creations in a feature role, is world-class. Achieved through a combination of computer imagery and practical effects, it’s a convincing threat that never spoils the long build-up. It’s just a shame some some of the little details, such as Pocock’s seemingly ever-changing hair colour, betray the blockbuster shopfront.
Despite pulling on some familiar tropes, Sparke openly defies a number of them in RED BILLABONG. After all, where else are you going to see a gathering of an elite group of kick-ass Aboriginal bunyip fighters ready to take down a homegrown monster? This has the potential of being a global cult hit, and if you stay through the credits to acknowledge the hard work of everyone involved, you might just get a hint of more franchise possibilities to come. Move over Mick Taylor, Australia’s got a new terror to run from.
2016 | Australia | DIR: Luke Sparke | WRITERS: Luke Sparke | CAST: Dan Ewing,Tim Pocock, Sophie Don, Jessica Green, Ben Chisholm, John Reynolds, Emily Joy, James Straiton, Felix Williamson, Gregory Fryer | DISTRIBUTOR: Pinnacle Films | RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes