Tasmanian filmmakers embrace the dark side

TASSIE NOIR: The Gloaming is the latest in a wave of films and TV shows that show a darker side of Tasmania. Pictures: Supplied
TASSIE NOIR: The Gloaming is the latest in a wave of films and TV shows that show a darker side of Tasmania. Pictures: Supplied

Blockbuster films, smash TV shows and major festivals have embraced the Tasmanian Gothic genre. But does depicting the dark side risk turning Tasmania into a 'sideshow house of horrors'?

Vicki Madden can't help feel a sense of foreboding when she gazes at the Tasmanian wilderness.

She felt it when she visited the Gordon Dam as a child, peering over the 140 metre high concrete fortress wedged between jagged mountains

The memory of that dam resurfaced decades later and Madden knew it was the perfect place to shoot parts of her eerie Tasmanian thriller, The Gloaming.

"It's really important to try and tap into your own psyche I guess in order to unsettle someone else," she says.

Vicki Madden

Vicki Madden

The Gordon Dam is one of many rugged landscapes that provide an unsettling backdrop to The Gloaming, which follows two detectives on a journey filled with haunted childhood memories, sinister crimes and mystical practices.

The landscape in The Gloaming, as with Madden's previous series The Kettering Incident, almost "becomes the antagonist".

She believes there's something inherently dark about her home state and its violent history can be sensed in its landscapes.

"It's also a reluctance I think of people to talk about it and that adds to that mystery, adds to the foreboding," she says.

The Gloaming is the latest in a wave of harrowing films and television shows that harness Tasmanian landscapes, from the thylacine thriller The Hunter to the confronting revenge tale The Nightingale.

They are part of the Tasmanian Gothic tradition, a genre renowned for brooding landscapes, haunted characters and supernatural phenomena.

The resurgence of the genre has been a boon for the screen industry but not everyone wants a Gothic veil thrown over the state.

'SIDESHOW HOUSE OF HORRORS'

THE MESSAGE: Rodney Croome has concerns about ways the Tasmanian Gothic has been used over the years. Picture: Supplied

THE MESSAGE: Rodney Croome has concerns about ways the Tasmanian Gothic has been used over the years. Picture: Supplied

Rodney Croome, who spends his days hunting historic Tasmanian texts when he's not fighting for LGBTIQ rights, has felt uncomfortable about the Tasmanian Gothic genre ever since he heard the term at university.

He says the genre can fail to show the "mix of hope and despair, beauty and ugliness, light and dark in equal proportion" the makes up Tasmania's history, culture and landscapes.

"My problem with the Tasmanian Gothic is that it only portrays the dark, not the light, and it portrays the dark in a cliched way that obscures more than it reveals," he says.

"A romantic vision of Tasmania as a place of wonder and promise was strong in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and had its most recent expression in the environment movement, but it seems to have been submerged by Gothic dread and fear in recent years."

Dr Croome is particularly outraged when he sees "a Gothic character" falsely attributed to Tasmanian places and stories.

... The meaning of words has been twisted or stories distorted to make Tasmania seem like a sideshow house of horrors.

Rodney Croome

He points to authors who use the old name for the South-West region, Transylvania, even though the word "was simply Latin for 'the land across the forest', and had nothing to do with vampires".

And he says the colonial classic For the Term of His Natural Life "includes entire stories that were twisted around to make them seem less hopeful and more dreadful than they really were".

"I could give you dozens more examples where the meaning of words has been twisted or stories distorted to make Tasmania seem like a sideshow house of horrors," he says.

"I understand today's authors and screenwriters are trying to portray Tasmania authentically when they go Gothic, but I'd urge them to consider if there are other more nuanced, original and honest ways to represent Tasmania."

DARK HUMOUR

LIGHT SIDE: Rosehaven provides a lighter window into Tasmanian life. Picture: Supplied

LIGHT SIDE: Rosehaven provides a lighter window into Tasmanian life. Picture: Supplied

The quirky buddy comedy Rosehaven provides a counterpoint to the sinister spread of the Tasmanian Gothic but the TV series could have easily embraced the dark side.

Co-writer and star Luke McGregor said the original idea was to make a show about real estate agents selling haunted houses.

"We just thought it would be funny having someone selling a house to someone and all of a sudden the walls started bleeding," the comedian says.

"But we decided to go with something a bit more realistic."

LIGHT SIDE: Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola wrote and performed in Rosehaven. Picture: Supplied

LIGHT SIDE: Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola wrote and performed in Rosehaven. Picture: Supplied

Even after Rosehaven's light-hearted tone was settled, the production was still haunted by the Gothic.

"The Kettering Incident for example is a show that is very different to ours but we filmed in very similar locations," McGregor says.

"We actually had to change the colour of the house in post production because it was the same house in The Kettering Incident."

But McGregor doesn't believe Tasmania is inherently dark: its landscapes can be a tranquil backdrop to a heartwarming tale of friendship or a moody metaphor for a supernatural thriller.

"Something we liked about Tassie, it can be a bit of a chameleon," he says.

FUNDING THE FEAR

LEFT: Ewen Leslie and Emma Booth play two detectives haunted by their past in The Gloaming.

LEFT: Ewen Leslie and Emma Booth play two detectives haunted by their past in The Gloaming.

The popularity of the Tasmanian Gothic has been fueled by Screen Tasmania, which has poured money into The Gloaming,The Hunter and cannibal convict biopic The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce.

But Screen Tasmania executive manager Alex Sangston says there's been plenty of non-noir projects that have been funded, from the documentary series Aussie Lobster Men to the web comedy Australia's Best Street Racer.

He says decisions about what productions to invest in are made on the economic impact of a project, the strength of a story and the target audience.

"We wouldn't for example make a decision not to fund something on the basis it would impact negatively on the way the state is seen," he explains.

"It's more about authenticity rather than a question of whether it depicts Tasmania positively or negatively."

ON SET: Production of The Gloaming at the Gordon Dam. Picture: Supplied

ON SET: Production of The Gloaming at the Gordon Dam. Picture: Supplied

Mr Sangston said he "loved" The Gloaming when he heard the pitch, especially because Madden was "a proven brand" who could "really, really write".

"She had a really interesting story to tell about Tasmanian history and the way Tasmania sees itself," he says.

Mr Sangston said the $7.5 million of economic activity generated by The Gloaming off the back of $1 million of Screen Tasmania funding "was the largest we've ever had".

And while he's not a huge fan of the term "Tassie Noir", he says the success of titles that carry that label have helped put the state's film industry on the map.

"The Kettering Incident was a big game changer," he says.

"People saw not only can we do it but we're got really interesting places to tell stories and really interesting stories to tell."

TRADITION OF TERROR

OFF SCREEN: The Dark Mofo festival channels the darker and pagan side of Tasmania

OFF SCREEN: The Dark Mofo festival channels the darker and pagan side of Tasmania

The Tasmanian Gothic was born from the European Gothic tradition in the early colonial era, according to UTAS media studies lecturer Gemma Blackwood.

"It draws on the Gothic idea of ghost stories and being haunted by the past but arguably the Tasmanian Gothic is connected to our violent colonial history and that includes the convict history and the colonial violence of the Aboriginal people," she explains.

Dr Blackwood says The Gloaming continues the Tasmanian Gothic tradition with characters haunted by their past and overtones of suppressed violence.

And she says it's not just modern filmmakers embracing the genre.

"You see it in the rise of cultural institutions like MONA, you're seeing a lot of interest in dark and Gothic themes played out for visitors and tourists," she said

But Dr Blackwood argues Tasmania is not an inherently evil place, despite what we may read, watch or see at a festival.

"Dark Mofo has a lot of pagan themes but we know that Tasmanians are not going around and sacrificing people in wicker men," she said.

"It's the same thing for The Gloaming - we watch the show aware of Tasmanian Gothic meanings, but it's not as if we truly believe there are pagan rites occurring in Hobart suburbia.

"We can enjoy the show and take the gothic themes tongue-in-cheek, a version of Tasmania but perhaps - hopefully - not the real one."

This story Tasmanian filmmakers embrace the dark side first appeared on The Examiner.