Adelaide has always had a flair for the horrific. Reporter David Simmons explores the ins and outs of the scene and the people who make it.
At Adelaide’s Writers’ Week in 1984, novelist Salman Rushdie said Adelaide was “the perfect setting for a Stephen King novel or horror film”.
With a history of infamous serial killings, anonymous suburban sprawl, and an air of mystery amplified by famous missing persons cases and unidentifiable bodies on our coastline, the South Australian capital has maintained a position in the national psyche as somewhere that’s slightly off.
It’s also beautiful, bordered by the Adelaide Hills hemming the flat city against the sea and trapping residents into spreading north and south. The winding and mostly-brown River Torrens penetrates the CBD fringe and threatens to swallow naïve rowers and late-night lovers, but gleams in the midday sun. It’s reflected in new buildings along its banks.
Salman’s assessment of the city we call home has proved true, if our cinematic output is the yardstick.
In recent years, a bundle of quality horror flicks has come out of Adelaide or been filmed in this state. The Royal Hotel is the latest – an outback thriller that opened the 2023 Adelaide Film Festival. Before that, Netflix production The Stranger was shot at SA Film Corporation’s Glenside studios. Indigenous-led vampire series Firebite was filmed in SA for AMC Studios, and psychological thriller Run Rabbit Run was made here too, starring local megastar Sarah Snook. Further back, we’ve got Wolf Creek, The Babadook, Snowtown, and – debatably a horror movie – Bad Boy Bubby.
The runaway success of the lot has been a terrifying debut from Adelaide’s RackaRacka brothers: Talk to Me. After its premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2022, the movie was picked up by global tastemakers A24 and distributed throughout the world.
The film is now the highest grossing horror movie for the US distributor, even beating out cult favourite Midsommar for the title.
There’s clearly something in the water in Adelaide. Whether a by-product of alienation from the highfalutin east coasters, a warped response to the psychological terrors wrought upon the population by serial killers and kidnappers, or simply a curse placed upon us by Salman Rushdie is irrelevant. What is true, is that our ability to consistently produce top-quality, heart-pumping horror is turning a dividend for the state and those employed by the screen industry, and is building up a passionate base of fanatics creating their own cottage industry in tow.
“We have got lots of locations that work for this type of genre, and they feel pretty fresh,” SA Film Corporation CEO Kate Crosser says.
“Talk to Me felt fresh but it also felt real. Watching it, you felt like ‘I know that house’, and I think audiences all over the world are feeling that.
“Audiences want to see very specifically grounded content, and it’s actually appealing to a mainstream audience. Locating it in Adelaide really grounded it in a place, which made audiences feel more connected to it.”
The Bonfire Horror Club meets on the final Friday of every month. Find out more at Palace Nova’s website.
WELCOME… TO ADELAIDE’S HORROR SCENE
A growing community of horror lovers has established itself recently in Adelaide and has been packing out our biggest cinema month-on-month with rabid enthusiasts of gore, grime, and ghouls.
At the centre of the scene is a Palace Nova-run monthly horror night that’s built up a solid base of fans keen on the genre’s variety. Orbiting it are deeply passionate individuals with businesses that cater to the genre, from VHS merchants to podcasters to comic book boutiques.
It’s called ‘The Bonfire Horror Club’. CityMag’s first experience with the event was exhilarating; a sold-out screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
After a generous welcome from Palace Nova’s Brandon Summers (the Club’s founder), the cinema goes dark and the movie begins… only there’s no audio. Instead, the crowd improvises sound effects for the opening 30 seconds of the film. The screw-up is noticed swiftly and soon we settle into Carpenter’s masterpiece.
“Cancel your Netflix subscriptions,” says a passionate Brandon to CityMag. It’s a recurring phrase of his, and one he loves to declare to crowds at Bonfire Horror Club screenings.
“Cinema is definitely on the upturn. We’re coming out of the pandemic and people want to experience movies rather than just consume them.
“I think the success of the Bonfire Horror Club really shows that people want that again. When we talk about crowd reactions – no genre is better at crowd reactions than in these screenings.”
Originally from Sydney, Brandon was working at the Palace Nova café and decided to pitch the idea of a monthly horror night to the powers-that-be. As part of his pitch, he proposed a handful of sponsors – businesses in Adelaide that all love the grisly genre, including Terror Vision Podcast, Underground Records, Greenlight Comics, Galactic Video, Dark Oz and Vicious Video. They are the ‘connective tissue’ of the Club according to Brandon.
Terror Vision is hosted by Greenlight Comics co-owner Dan McGuinnes and self-proclaimed ‘horror enthusiast’ Jennifer Strand. Together they “spoil the fuck out of your favourite horror movies”.
“Horror – from a film-making perspective – has such a big and vivid community because it’s something that anyone can achieve; anyone can make a horror film,” Dan says.
“All it takes these days is a camera and an idea. There’s no reason why everyone can’t make a horror film.
“A lot of people attach themselves to the craft of the filmmaking. I like practical effects and prosthetics and latex – and you can walk out of a horror film and say ‘I’m going to learn how to make fake blood and prosthetic limbs’ and it’s something that you can totally achieve.”
Another Adelaide podcast duo holds the genre close to their hearts.
Dave Mclennan and Casey Cumming host Dave’s Video Graveyard (a very R-rated listen) and are big fans of horror. Dave is one of Adelaide’s most colourfully dressed denizens and says movies are “a reflection of the society that they’ve come from”.
“That’s true, because we’ve had so many mass murders and abductions,” Casey adds. “Snowtown is its own horror – reality horror.”
They both pointed to an underdog of the Adelaide horror canon – Ribspreader. The locally made flick premiered at the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival and takes direct influence from the schlockiest straight-to-VHS of horror flicks.
Directed by Dick Dale, it follows Bryan Burns: a man haunted by a cigarette mascot called Sigmund and taunted until he violently cuts the lungs out of smokers with a machine called a ‘ribspreader’. It stars some of Adelaide’s more colourful personalities, and even had a making-of documentary created prior to its release by local filmmakers, Matthew Bate and Liam Somerville.
“When Dick was making [Ribspreader] so many worlds collided that I knew through different avenues that all of a sudden we’re all working on this,” Dave explains.
“The metal music scene, the wrestling scene – they’re offshoots of what horror probably has as a culture in itself. That’s probably why it attracts so many different people,” Casey adds.
One of Adelaide’s horror enablers is a CityMag favourite – Vicious Video founder Deniel Cross. Out of his retail spot in Rundle Mall’s Charles Street Plaza, Deniel sells vintage VHS tapes agnostic to genre, but horror occupies an entire wall.
Visit Vicious Video at Shop/8 Charles Street, Adelaide 5000.
He says the stigma of Adelaide being a serial killer capital might have something to do with our love of the genre.
“The horror collectors are a breed unto their own,” Deniel says.
“Some of these films are awful – horrendous – they really are just boring slugs. But you chuck a skull and a dagger and blood through it and you get a $150 tape that everybody wants – it’s a must have immediately.
“I think the imagery really resonates with the collectors who are looking at ways to recapture their childhood. When you’re greeted with these incredible covers, they shock you, they terrorise you, they creep up in your nightmares.
“The older you get those fears sort of resonate and they find their place, but you want ownership on that – you want to take that back. Claiming these tapes is a sort of reconsolidation of the trauma of your childhood.”
But $150 tapes aren’t for everyone, and Brandon reckons the best way to watch horror flicks is on the big screen.
“Watch movies, go to the cinema, and have value in the movies you experience because streaming has taken that value away,” he says.