Australian cinema is one of the most interesting parta of cinema in general. We Australians have made some of the most odd, unique, and visionary works in cinema. Crocodile Dundee, Wolf Creek and Rogue, Rabbit Proof Fence, Happy Feet, Fern Gully, The collective Baz Luhrman filmography, and of course the Mad Max quadrilogy (which is probably one of the ONLY working 4 film franchises) are rather widely known globally. For a while, Australian directors like Philip Noyce (Patriot Games, Bone Collector, Salt), Peter Weir (The Witness, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), and Roger Donaldson (Species, Dante’s Peak, Thirteen Days, World’s Fastest Indian) were making the above average, slightly unique Hollywood film. And the more obscure, yet equally impressive works like Mystery Road, Ten Canoes, The Castle, Razorback and the legendarily amazing Wake in Fright are influential and important regardless of their cult or home grown status. Unfortunately, we can also make bad movies like any other culture. Whether they be dumb schlock like Baz Luhrman’s Australia, boring like The Water Diviner, or just underwhelming like The Babadook… sometimes they’re all that and more. This is where Red Billabong comes in to take the cake as what I’m going to call the worst Australian film I’ve ever seen.
Now, I get some fellow Australian industry colleagues aren’t going to respond nicely to me pretty much tearing this movie apart- but like any part of the film industry: we don’t give lacking indie horror films a free pass. Criticizing bad movies like this is what gets us to have Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the best films ever made. I’m only giving it this review so better films can be made after the fact.
To give whatever praise I can out of the way: this film (especially for an indie) is technically competent… for a while at least… and shows some good direction and general cinematography. Only one of the Aboriginal actors (who is not on screen enough and would be a more interesting protagonist) is the only good performance… except for the dog, who’s the most engaging character and well-performed of the bunch. The gore is welcome, the colour grade is a bit better than most washed out colours in Aussie films, and some of the early horror elements are fine… everything else though is absolutely horrible.
The story is really kind of terrible. Two brothers come together after the grandfather dies and they have to deal with his property in the bush, either selling it or giving to the Aboriginal tribe that their father promised it to. The film doesn’t start off well considering the older went to the city to have a career and life, and the youngest stayed so he takes shots at his brother for wanting to grow as a person (this is an Aussie cliché called “The Aussie Battler” story and it’s death-to-death, at its worst here). Also, this film’s conflict only exists by the brothers not really doing anything together and the youngest wanting to go against his grandfather’s wishes. But there’s those two plots, a local drug criminal, an old flame, other family problems… and the monster barely has anything to do with it. While yes, the monster’s existence is the “point of attack” that causes the conflict, it doesn’t really do anything and the plot proceeds at a pace which is “dumb people do stupid things so the plot can happen”, along with details that mean nothing. Remember how I brought up that there was a drug subplot… that’s as far as it goes. No cops show up to seize it, no one gets high and we see lucid stuff- it goes NOWHERE! The plot feels like a weak version of Friday the 13th…a BAD Friday the 13th film. Wherein characters hear a random noise in the bush while they’re at a house and one tells the other “Go check it out”. There’s no reason for this, none of these characters have any investment to care and the guy who checks it goes like 100 meters into the bush at night. Why did this happen?For the sake of one of the VERY few cool spooky moments, along with another scenario where a character sees and hears scary things…but decides to go to the water, along, away from civilization.
This movie’s bad screenwriting comes down to three problems:
-Overly elaborate expository dialogue
-Lack of visual storytelling
Things happen or are done for the sake of the plot. Characters explain motivations and actions, and no form of visual storytelling is used properly. Actually, I take that back- there’s ONE use of good visual storytelling. Wanna know what it is? It’s a sign that shows “Free Wifi”. I’m not kidding that’s the only useful bit of visual storytelling. Otherwise it’s exposition and vague shots of things. There’s also really bad set ups for scares and geography. One of the very few jumps I had is one that isn’t set up and comes out of nowhere. Otherwise, characters and elements don’t have any real world logic or presence. Like, characters will say compromising things within ear shot of others, the environments are small but treated big and overall, things don’t exist except for the sake of this bad plot. There’s no real direction of the scares, the environment, or even the monster we get. Everything exists just vaguely in an environment you sort of get, otherwise nothing makes real sense. This movie’s process goes from: Annoyingly Stupid → Hilariously Stupid → Boringly Stupid → Irritatingly Stupid.
And I’m not gonna lie, for about the middle 20 minutes of the film (this film is WAY too long), it’s some of the most fun I’ve had laughing at a movie since Hanna. Some of the lines, dialogue, moments, and story reveals in that time are so bad, it was like my own version of The Room had happened. There’s a moment where a girl and guy are talking and he’s like, “There’s lions, tigers, and bears out here.” (which is a stupid and outdated line) She goes “Oh no.” in the worst line read ever, and he says “Oh no.” like it’s a badass line… and I couldn’t stop laughing. There are so many moments that’ll have you face-palm, sigh, roll your eyes, or laugh like a maniac, that I’m amazed at it. It really is like an Australian version of The Room or Birdemic that tries to be serious but ends up being hilarious. Like a moment a guy is trying to reach to electrocute water…but it’s only like 30 centimeters from him, and you can see the actor straining to not just plunge his hand in the water that’s close to him. Or how a guy can hold a woman’s neck for 5 seconds and she goes unconscious. Or how bad guys will explain the evil plan they already know… to each other… in ear shot of characters who shouldn’t know this. Or there’s a moment where a guy is trying to show evidence to people across the river and calls to them to show, but hides it after holding it for a second and them not seeing it. Or the non-build-up of a missing character who then appears to make a “set up, build-up, tension, scare” in 40 seconds on characters we’ve never met. It’s bad.
All the performances are either bad, boring, or laughably inept. Again, only one Aboriginal actor has any presence and it’s because of his form and his effort. He should’ve been the main character instead of boring whiteboys again. The girls are somehow worse than disposable women in a cliché slasher, the villains are just… oh, they are stupidly made. And if there’s one thing you’ll be guaranteed to enjoy- it’s the dog whenever he’s on screen.
But now to the only semi-good thing… and paradoxically the biggest problem of the film, our monster: the Bunyip. Now, I will list the good things
-The gore involving the Bunyip is fun.
-The Blair Witch style “Noises in the woods” early on is good.
-The backstory (while I’m no expert of Aboriginal dream time stories) is fine.
But everything else…oh boy. Here goes:
-The creature has an inconsistent sound design where it goes between Xenomorph screeches, T-Rex growls and zombie grumbles.
-They try to play up the idea of the creature not existing… which fails because they show a possible sighting, then actually show it, then try to set up the fake monster idea again (the trailers and DVD box art show it).
-The creature design isn’t either the weird alien or realistic creature forms we’ve seen done previously, instead it’s like a default monster game design you purchase for $20 on Unity.
-The creature has a really easy weakness… that only comes up when it’s required, but otherwise doesn’t exist for the sake of tension.
-The CGI is bad in that the creature’s size changes from dog-sized, to human-sized, to bigger than a car. It’s jarring as to reveal how little pre-visualization went into this. It also shows when people are trying to shoot or stab nothing and the effect is just bad because it’s not synced up well.
Part of this movie’s contrived plot is it needs three women who are “connected”. This doesn’t mean family, friends or sisters- just a vague (there’s that word again) “connected” and the monster will vaguely become more powerful. And considering two of these girls we don’t really care about…that’s a problem.
Other random problems:
-Licensed songs often don’t fit.
-Editing is really bad.
-Action feels un-impactful.
-Geography of locations in action and horror doesn’t work.
-CGI of monster shows in actor’s performances.
After all this, here’s my diagnosis: Red Billabong is a film trying to be a serious, story-rich horror film, that unfortunately is too complicated and contrived to be a good story, too silly to be taken serious, and too boring as it lacks horror. Also, I noticed a lot of the production styling and direction was trying to pull that Michael Bay effect (hence the CGI, shootouts, often unnecessary cinematography flair, and somewhat “run-and-gun without pre-visualization” style.) Unfortunately all of this comes down to a film of wasted effort that’s hilariously bad. If you wanted this story done better: it either should’ve purely focused on the Aboriginal characters and culture (cause that’s the best part), or been just a monster slasher movie where kids get axed off by a monster. Either would’ve been better, cheaper, and less cluttered. The people involved tried to make a good movie. Unfortunately every decision was the wrong one. The director couldn’t do anything impressive directorial wise, the effects were mostly terrible, the story and beats were laughable or stupid, the writing atrocious, and most of all… it’s just misplaced effort. The creators aren’t hacks, and they’re currently doing another low budget genre film in the form of an alien invasion film called Occupation, and I hope it’s better. But here’s the thing: know what your films are. Either make a junky fun, gory monster flick… or make a meaningful drama. You can’t do both, and very few have done it well. I want Australian films to be better, but we have to stop trying to do the stuff we’ve always done. The Aussie Battler, city versus bush, angry dads, go nowhere endings… all need to stop. Let’s be more original, not just smash two groups of clichés together.
And if you need a rating of mine for this film…call it: The Worst Film of 2016.