The Gothic Family
While standing as a touchstone of stability and symbolic order, the family has also always been a site of conflicting, chaotic disorder. The deterioration of family relationships, destabilisation of family and family members’ identities, and the emergent depravity of parents and patriarchs, lie at the heart of Gothic literary and cinematic narratives. Equally, the pervasiveness of various Gothic trappings, themes, tropes and motifs within thrillers, science fiction, melodrama and horror films can be read as a reflection of the pertinence of narratives of insecurity, uncertainty and personal danger, and the undermining of senses of self and belonging, to all these genres, and lying behind their frequent Gothic inflections. Concomitantly, these features underline the relevance and recognition of a Gothic tone to many and varied texts’ engagements with the instability and unreliability of superficial harmony. Individual physical peril can be seen to stand for (or narratively expand into) wider representative threats to institutional, existential, societal or ideological order. The familiarity of this pattern is comparable to the obligatory ‘deracination’ of the Gothic protagonist, which has come to be shared by the potential victims of shadowy conspiracies in thrillers, or of serial killers in slasher horror films. Beyond the individual, the first level of institutional order to be threatened (either by destruction from without, or by being revealed to be disordered in itself and therefore destroyed from within) is the family.
The increasing concentration upon the family and the domestic sphere as constituents and environments of American horror cinema from the 1970s onwards has been noted by Tony Williams: families, as the principal factors ‘determining everyone’s psychic and social formation according to changing historical, political, and ideological dimensions’ are as capable of harbouring ‘oppositional thought’ as they are of ‘reproduc[ing] oppressive structures within their own spheres of influence’.1
Paul Wells claims that since the release of Psycho
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) – itself a generically disruptive text exhibiting Gothic aspects and a subverted suspense-thriller narrative, and thereby anticipating later slasher films – it is the family itself that has become the primary focus of horror:
The family has been perceived as increasingly dysfunctional; the locus for incest, abuse and other Oedipal angst. Indeed, the domestic space has become the
locality for the worst of horror … the horror text continually addresses the dysfunctional and antithetical aspects of the romantic and the domestic, collapsing all received notions of predictable gender identities and social formations.2
Horror cinema narratives have been increasingly embedded within the home and the contemporary domestic environment since the 1970s in American, British and Australian cinema, with a consequent concentration on the unheimlich
: ‘the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads us back to what is known of old and long familiar.’3
While examples in contemporary Australian Gothic cinema share many of these characteristics, their national distinction also needs to be located in both their sociocultural specificity, in their relationship with the tropes and effects of the literary Gothic, and in the significance of this family emphasis as a continuation of establishment critiques in the earliest identified examples, such as the films of Weir and Sharman. The heroine’s disturbed and disturbing view of the sign over the family’s front door (‘EMOH RUO’ – ‘Our Home’ reversed) in Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens
ushers in the exploration of her domestic existence, summed up clinically in her asylum case file: ‘home life unsatisfactory; father chronic alcoholic; mother disinterested in Shirley’s welfare; alienated from younger sister; major schism in personality.’ Subversion of the conventional societal template reproduced by the family, or revelation of the perversion hidden within household spaces and familial relationships in modern horror, may be traced back to the unnatural cruelties of literary Gothic patriarchs and authority figures. Destabilisation of domestic spaces and relationships therefore function as literalisations and visualisations of the uncanny. Within all these examples, albeit via different avenues, allusions and techniques, the homely is re-rendered as the unhomely, conservative conformity is inverted or shown to be illusory, and the familial/familiar is suddenly discovered to be disturbing and unrecognisable.
As Dermody and Jacka and Thomas and Gillard have affirmed, cynicism, subversion and mockery in the portrayal of the ordinary have consistently characterised the Australian Gothic. In Australian Gothic films the familiarity and certainty of the home, the family, the town and wider social order have been continually disrupted, devalued and overturned. This occurs to such a frequency and extent that the uncanny becomes the familiar and the paradoxical norm, extending outwards to define, taint and critique Australian individuals and institutions, whether portrayed in the present or past, in rural or urban settings or in societal, institutional or domestic milieux. Dermody and Jacka note the force of this Gothic defamiliarisation in the satiric depiction of the suburbs in the prototypical example of Sharman’s The Night The Prowler:
Because it is not openly declared it [the Gothic] gains a sly power. The qualities in Australian, or perhaps any, suburban life that give so much scope to the Gothic response are the trained smallness of mind, the careful blindness of eye, the litany of trivial responses, the deathly quest for security. They are all small signs of death.4
Eliding physical peril to satirise the ‘small’ spiritual ‘deaths’ of suburban existence, Sharman’s film simultaneously mocks and Gothicises mundanity. Similarly, in the seminal The Cars That Ate Paris
, no tier or aspect of banal patriarchal authority in the town of Paris escapes implication in the community’s dark, car-crash-dependent economy. The doctor receives the victimised drivers and passengers as unwilling experimental subjects; the police chief colludes with the town council; and the Mayor (played by John Meillon) as council leader orchestrates the cover-up of the town’s activity and absorbs ‘orphans’ from the crashes into his own family, while claiming a preferential cut from the proceedings. The hapless Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri), who unexpectedly survives and recovers after the crash that killed his brother, becomes the Mayor’s adoptive son and the town’s traffic warden, in return for his obedient silence. (His acquiescence echoes the absorption of the malleable Mr Malfry into the repressive order of Homesdale). That at the film’s conclusion, the town’s own inverted order collapses and Arthur, previously unable to face driving, is delivered gleefully back to the power and danger of the road, underlines how Paris’s economy exists as an uncanny emblem of western capitalism, consumerist agency and car ownership. Having begun with sequential instances of defamiliarisation (a mock advertisement ending in a fatal car accident, followed by the image of ‘a deceptively sleepy little town surrounded by comfortable hills’), Cars
lingers as a sustained example of humorous, parodic and subversive uncanniness in its subverted images of town, home and family.5
Such dissection of the flaws of the family, framed as analogies and progenitors of wider societal iniquities and injustices, echoes in other Australian films whose Gothic elements occur within or alongside the conventions of other genres. The deceitful controlling patriarch, a literal or metaphorical father figure as symbol of institutional, societal and political authority occurs as a darkly humorous, parodic but also demonic figure in comedies such as Strictly Ballroom
(Baz Luhrmann, 1992) and Muriel’s Wedding
(P. J. Hogan, 1994). The casting of Bill Hunter – usually the portrayer of an impeccable everyman – in these films as both Barry Fife (shady president of the ballroom dancing federation) in Strictly Ballroom
and Bill Heslop (adulterous father and corrupt local politician) in Muriel’s Wedding
, does not expunge their failings and rather implies such abuses of family, power and position can be perpetrated by the most prototypical Australians.6
While Barry Fife’s power eventually evaporates in a restorative comedic ending, Bill Heslop remains untouchable and unrepentant, revealing how while in Luhrmann’s film the Gothic characterisation simply comes to the fore in and because of a musical tragi-comedy environment, in Hogan’s film the Gothic patriarch’s malign unassailability remains an insuperable obstacle to a conventional conclusion. In depicting the emotional life of the family in Gothic terms, Hogan’s films exhibit the traits of black comedy, hybridity, mental disturbance and incongruity isolated in the earliest Australian Gothic films.
In reorientating aspects of female-centred family melodrama, Hogan’s films represent conspicuous examples of the generic mixing characterising the Australian Gothic, and that in itself foregrounds the presence, effects and significance of Gothic materials. The putative comedies of Muriel’s Wedding and Mental (2012) both feature bleak narratives of broken families and poisoned domestic environments that appear to occasion epidemics or inheritances of mental illness. Muriel’s self-loathing and lack of confidence mirror her mother’s and are traceable to the same infective source: the patriarch. The director’s view of this pitiable situation as expressed in an interview acknowledges the profound discontent and lack of fulfilment that this imposes on every family member:
The irony is that Bill and Muriel are so much alike and yet Bill sees Muriel as a failure. Of course, if we perceive him as he perceives Muriel, Bill is just as big a failure. He has failed to give his family any support; he’s a very selfish and self-centred man.7
Muriel ricochets between her attempts to deny and escape her roots and frantic struggles to conform to the expectations of conventional womanhood and marriage, examples of which the film both satirises in Muriel’s victimised and victimising peer group, and angrily laments in the life and suicide of Betty Heslop (Jeanie Drynan). If the humour that Muriel’s Wedding unflinchingly unearths within vindictive relationships and unsound marriages appears strained, Hogan’s subsequent film Mental (which resembles an extension or reimagining of the narrative of Muriel’s Wedding) disturbingly confronts the average family’s capability to engender mushrooming mental ill-health by combining broad humour and domestic tragedy. Again, the arrogant and immoral exercise of entitlement by the patriarch Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia) propagates genuine and imagined disorders and disabling insecurities in his daughters, and induces a complete nervous breakdown in the neglected wife and mother (Rebecca Gibney). Shirley Moochmore harbours a sanguine but unhinged belief that her husband would spend time at home if his family were perfect like the blissful Von Trapps from The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). To protect his political career and deny the truth and source of Shirley’s collapse, Barry has his wife committed to a mental institution, and in answer to any questions he commands his children to say that their mother is “on holiday in Wollongong”. Rather than promoting a performance of normality to restore the family members, the interloping babysitter Shaz (played by Toni Collette as an avenging echo of Muriel Heslop) advocates ferocious attacks against the judgemental suburbanites who despise them. According to Shaz, the normal world, its denizens and their denials are actually insane, and the mistreated non-conformists who are labelled mentally ill must strike back violently:
You know what they say about youse in this town? Hmm? They say youse are freaks. They say you don’t belong. They say you’re good-for-nothing layabouts who’ll never achieve nothin’. If someone said that about me, I’d cut their throats. Why aren’t youse out there cuttin’ their throats?
Although, like Muriel’s Wedding, Mental eventually reaches a semi-restorative ending with the Moochmores reunited and their caricatured disapproving relatives and neighbours chastened, the film’s navigation of the family’s origins (in what Shirley describes blandly as ‘sort-of rape’), its trials (prowling mental illness allegorised comically and horrifically as a quintessential Australian terror, the man-eating shark) and even its deranged redemption, extract shrill and dark comedy from the miring effects of suburban Australian life. The hint of an everyday, oppressive Gothicism in the characterisation of Mayor Heslop in Muriel’s Wedding is reiterated in the character of Mayor Moochmore, but in spite of the enduring afflictions of Shirley, Shaz and others, Mental ends both on a note of collective family harmony and on the spectacle of grotesque retribution visited upon suburban normality. The dynamic but disconcerting combination of musical and melodrama, comedy and mental-health tragedy, campness and bitter satire, genre and tonal uncertainty and incongruity in Hogan’s films makes them appear the natural successors to Sharman’s seminal Gothic examples.
This repeated and enforced unfamiliarity – of individual nature, family behaviour, social character and national identity – in Australian Gothic extends beyond the home and the town or the city to the wider natural landscape, which also becomes uncanny on account of its difference, unpredictability and inhospitableness. Just as the familiar and the expected provide the criteria against which the unpredictable and the irrational attain meaning, the uncanniness of the Australian environment emerges discernibly from numerous dualisms, distinguishing it from norms of the Northern hemisphere and creating further differences and distinctions between urban, rural and regional natural landscapes:
Many Australian Gothic narratives are structured around binary oppositions that invoke atopia
and that create a sense of place by pitting the meaning of the Gothic space against another region of Australia: the populous cities of the south-eastern seaboard understand themselves in relation to the outlying regions of the Top End, the Red Centre, and Tasmania.8
The recalcitrance and unrecognisability of the landscape are reinforced by this atopic
tendency towards placelessness, in which no location attains a reassuringly stable status as home. However, as Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs have argued, an uncanny sense of not belonging in the continent afflicting non-Aboriginal Australian culture is symptomatic of the country’s colonial and postcolonial existence, and in itself a tacit acknowledgement of pre-existing, pre-eminent but inaccessible forms of belonging retained by its indigenous inhabitants.9
Familiarity, family and the emergence of the uncanny therefore come to define Australian Gothic narratives in both unrecognisable, blank natural landscapes and supposedly recognisable (over)populated human ones, where nonetheless ‘the normal is revealed as having a stubborn bias towards the perverse, the grotesque, the malevolent’.10
Suspicion of the deceptiveness of the normal, and an anxious awareness of the unreliability of individual perception of it, are stages in the Gothic protagonists’ deracination, as well as components of the Gothic text’s criticism of malevolent mundanity. Further examples of the Gothic manifested in the rural town or home, the stifling suburban environment, and in the natural landscape extend and consolidate the illusoriness of the familiar and encroachment of the abnormal.
Isolation, Insularity, Introspection: Summerfield, iSOLATE, Backtrack
If the Gothic gestures towards broken societal norms, the Australian Gothic film articulates such ruptures via conflicted, blurred or broken filmic conventions. The trope of the Gothic rural setting or community recurs in films straddling categories of the thriller, horror and the supernatural. In contrast to the irony and extremity of The Cars That Ate Paris
, the brokenness of the rural Australian family appears at once more prosaically and more horrifically in Summerfield
(Ken Hannam, 1977). Critically dismissed because of its apparently ineffectual achievement of a thriller narrative, Hannam’s film can be more productively interpreted as a subversive short-circuiting of generic convention, and exploration of unnerving Gothic flaws within commonplace domestic and rural spaces.11
When young, single male teacher Simon Robinson (Nick Tate) arrives for a new job in a rural town, he is drawn to investigate not only his predecessor’s unexplained disappearance, but also the enigmatic Abbott family occupying the secluded Summerfield estate. Simon’s enquiries prove either ineffectual or actively harmful: he puzzles over school photos that seem to suggest a link between the previous class teacher and pupil Sally Abbott; searching the shoreline he nearly becomes fatally cut off by the tide; driving to the estate where Sally’s mother Jenny (Elizabeth Alexander) lives with her brother David (John Waters), Simon knocks Sally off her bicycle and breaks her leg. Far from intervening heroically and redemptively in a criminal mystery, Simon’s actions precipitate a needless, bloody tragedy. His attraction to Jenny, and his unproven suspicions that his predecessor was actually Sally’s father, lead him to infiltrate the estate and witness the previously implied truth: that Sally is the issue of an incestuous relationship between brother and sister. Fearing for his own safety Simon escapes the estate, but David instead kills his sister, daughter/niece and himself. Subsequently, Simon meets his predecessor (whose disappearance proves to have been utterly unconnected) alive and well.
Simon’s urge (and entitlement) to investigate within the putative thriller narrative of the film are undermined by misapprehension, mistakes and incompetence. His mistrust of the locals’ secrecy and the privacy preserved by the Abbotts leads to his heedless and damaging intervention. At the same time, the family of the Summerfield island estate functions as a corrupted analogy to the settlement and legacy of the island continent itself. The interior of the homestead contains a room of heirlooms that Jenny describes as the family’s ‘concession to the past’. The obsessiveness and self-destructiveness of the contaminated family (being descended from a nineteenth-century sea captain who first settled the island) is extended both to J...