A love of Casper the Friendly Ghost as a child led to a fascination with ghost stories, but the spectre in Dr Donna McRae’s latest film is not so friendly.
As the young girl walks, step by step, through the dark hallway, her pale face illuminated only by the light from the camp lantern in her hand, the audience holds a collective breath. And then everything is black…
The teaser for “Lost Gully Road” by Deakin University filmmaker and Lecturer in Screen and Design Donna McRae is barely 30 seconds long, but it’s enough to set to the scene for a story that combines the best of traditional horror movie moments with a searing examination of society’s attitudes towards violence against women.
Lucy (played by Adele Perovic of ABCTV’s “The Code”) is staying in a cottage in the middle of the bush, hiding from someone who wants to harm her. However, her sanctuary conceals other, hidden threats.
It’s no coincidence that reviewers described “Lost Gully Road”, which enjoyed a sold-out premiere at last month’s Melbourne’s Monster Fest, as a slow burning “bush gothic tale” and a “gothic tinged Aussie ghost story”.
Gothic ghost stories after all, have long been Dr McRae’s film making forte. Her PhD, “Projecting Phantasy: The Spectre in Cinema” was followed by the award-winning feature “Johnny Ghost” and her next project is a ghostly revisionist version of the life of Kate Kelly, sister of the infamous Ned.
Her passion for ghost stories and the idea of memory and haunting was sparked by her viewing habits as a child.
“I used to watch ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ when I was a little girl. I know – it’s not exactly scary,” she laughed.
“But I always liked spending Friday nights watching ‘Deadly Earnest’ and those old classic films like ‘The Haunting’ and ‘The Innocents’ and original 1948 version of ‘The Ghost and Mrs Muir.’
“I loved the spooky ideas behind them and now I’m really interested in the Australian gothic, especially the Australian female gothic. It’s about women in a particular landscape and that landscape could be an interior one, like in ‘Johnny Ghost,’ or an exterior one like the bush and cottage in ‘Lost Gully Road’.
“The thing that’s really interesting about making a ghost film is working out what the ghost represents. It could be memory, it could be another side of the same person. You can be so inventive with ghost and horror films, you can actually look at lots of themes that wouldn’t necessarily work in a straight drama.”
While Dr McRae describes the ghost in ‘Johnny Ghost’ as “something that was haunting the character from her past,” she took a different approach when writing “Lost Gully Road” with long-time collaborator Michael Vale, who was also the film’s production designer.
“This time I wanted to place the ghost externally, so there was something that might actually engage with the character physically. It’s a little bit nastier this time around because I wanted to explore the ghost film sub-genre and at the same time create a response to the appalling violence against women that was in the news at the time,” she said.
“The other thing that I was exploring with this film is when ‘no means no,’ which seems topical at the moment with the #MeToo campaign. Every woman has a story about the efforts we make to stay safe – if you have to walk home at night alone you do it with your keys in your hand as a weapon, when home alone at night you lock all the doors.”
Dr McRae said horror films were often viewed through the perspective of the male gaze and, while there are a lot of strong women in the genre, others are simply objectified. Female characters are often scantily dressed, get killed straight away, or are “just not valued”.
“Through the female gaze I wanted to portray a woman who is just normal; she’s a millennial, she’s not good, she’s not bad, she’s just her,” she said.
“How would that person react to this predator in the film? It’s the choices I make as a female film maker, I guess. I don’t show Lucy with no clothes on, I don’t objectify the violence; I just tried to show it like it is for so many women.”
She admits that she doesn’t watch a lot of “blood and guts” horror, finding psychological horror much more interesting.
“We don’t really even see the ghost in ‘Lost Gully Road’, but if you make the screen black enough everyone will imagine their own worst idea of a ghost.
“That’s another part of the research: which horror tropes work and which don’t. Many horror films have some poor, unsuspecting character opening the door and going down the stairs while the audience says, ‘Don’t go down the stairs!’, so people kind of know what’s coming but if you can twist it around, it’s more enjoyable.”
As well as Dr Vale, Dr McRae worked with other previous collaborators on the project, including fellow Deakin lecturer in Screen and Design Liz Baulch. Many of the behind-the-scenes roles, however, were filled by Deakin graduate students.
“Liz had a little band of students who helped her with production and did internships on the film and there were also students involved in the production design. Shannon Michaelas, a graduate student edited the whole film and Gemma Stack, another graduate student did the sound design so they stepped up into really big roles. All the students received their first feature credit for working on the film, they got to work with professional actors and see how a feature film, albeit a micro-budget one, is pulled together.”
Read more reviews of “Lost Gully Road”.
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From top: Deakin filmmaker Dr Donna McCrae; actor Adele Perovic as Lucy in Dr McCrae's feature film "Lost Gully Road"