Brothers Colin and Cameron Cairnes were always going to make a career out of scaring people.
And after watching every horror movie they could get their hands on as kids growing up in Brisbane, they were always going to be bloody good at it.
After dabbling in making short films, the brothers broke through into the world of writing and directing horror feature films in 2012 with the brilliantly dark comedy 100 Bloody Acres.
Starring Angus Sampson and John Jarratt, Acres wasn’t just a hit with fans; it was also nominated for four Australian Film Critics Association Awards and two AACTA awards, including one for best screenplay.
But then it all came to a grinding halt. Pirates sunk plans to release the film internationally, with Acres becoming one of the most frequently illegally downloaded films of 2013. At one point, it was being downloaded 2000 times a day.
Not the types to throw in the towel though, Col and Cam got back to work and have just completed Scare Campaign, a terrifying horror-thriller that delivers more chills than running an ice cube down your spine on a 35-degree day.
Filmed over just four weeks at the abandoned Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum in country Victoria, Scare Campaign is a multi-layered fright fest with more twists and turns than you can possibly anticipate and, best of all, it succeeds where so many horror films fail -- it’s actually really, really scary.
It all starts when foul-mouthed station boss Vicki (Sigrid Thornton) gives the crew of TV prank show Scare Campaign one last chance to deliver more than just jump scares and lame, hidden camera jokes -- or be cancelled.
Fearing for their jobs, cocky director Marcus (Ian Meadows) and the Scare Campaign team (Wolf Creek’s Cassandra McGrath, The Visit’s Olivia DeJonge and Meegan Warner) up the ante and stage an elaborate hoax at an abandoned mental asylum -- but it takes an unexpected turn and shit goes bad. Really bad.
“The film is basically what happens when you prank the wrong guy,” Cam said.
“We knew from the outset this was going to be a very different film to Acres. We really wanted it to be scarier -- it was really about teasing out those scary moments.”
Happy horror little Vegemites
The guys know all about scary moments; they’ve lived, breathed, slept and dreamt horror movies since they were boys.
“We grew up in a time there was such an abundance of horror, and it was a time when they pushed the boundaries a bit more and there were so many independents out there -– it was a really exciting time for the horror genre,” Cam said.
“I think it was maybe the taboo aspect that we liked; that we shouldn’t be watching this stuff as kids. I remember watching Friday the 13th as maybe an 8 or 9 year old, and OK, that film hasn’t probably stood the test of time, but as an 8-year-old kid in the early '80s, it terrified the shit out of me. It was that rush, that little thrill that I began chasing and I think Col did as well.”
The now Melbourne-based filmmakers say they learned from the best, inspired by the horror masters of the '70s and '80s -- John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog, The Thing), Joe Dante (The Howling), Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
“There were some great directors making horror films in the '50s and '60s, but they got a bit angrier in the '70s,” Cam said. “Like the Carpenters and the Cravens -- they resurrected the genre, and it was a major renaissance.
“We’d buy all the books we could get on the history of horror movies, but it was so hard to get copies of them. Sometimes those old horror films would turn up at 3am on Late Night Movies or on VHS, which was no good for us because our dad thought Beta was the future.
“He did all the research. He’d say, ‘the tape heads are better and they last longer’ and he was right because we’d go over the road to a mate’s place and watch VHS movies -- so the Beta tapes DID last longer!”
It was only a matter of time before that passion for watching and reading about horror films would lead the youngsters behind the camera -- well, their dad’s video camera at least.
“I think our work is reflective of those formative films and those experiences as young teenagers,” Col said.
“We were experimenting with dad’s video camera, or whatever camera we could get our hands on, and it was totally unscripted, and we’d just shoot in the camera and do the editing in the camera and the results were terrible -- but I think at the time, we were slowly developing skills as storytellers,” Cam said.
“When it all starts to change and get serious is when you sit down and start writing. When you start organising those ideas on a page, that’s where you sort the boys from the men.”
Aussies are pretty terrifying
Scare Campaign, which premiered at Melbourne's Monster Fest in November, is among good company in the recent Aussie horror film stable -- Wolf Creek, The Loved Ones, The Badadook, Charlie’s Farm and Wyrmwood have all made the global horror community sit up and acknowledge that Aussie filmmakers are really good at making quality horror films.
“We do it a bit differently here,” Cam said. “Our horror films are distinctly Australian -- well, the good ones are, like Wolf Creek, and the mid to late '70s exploitation stuff.
“I think it’s also that we don’t follow a formula. It’s certainly not a Hollywood sort of formula. We might take elements from those films, but I think in Australia there is a tendency to misbehave.
"I remember someone describing Australian horror films as being a little naughty -– that they don’t really follow the rules. And maybe that’s refreshing to an international audience. Plus we’ve got a different landscape here; that desolate desert landscape is so reflective of us.”
“We’re insecure in many ways, and I think we do still suffer from that cultural cringe a bit, but we can at least say we’re one of the deadliest places on earth and that is reflected in our films,” Col said.
“That’s one of our points of difference on the international stage; what a dangerous and terrifying place we are.”
Scare Campaign certainly brings that terror to the screen, particularly through the character of Rohan (Josh Quong Tart), an asylum prank stooge who turns the tables on the TV crew.
“We only cast Josh a week or two out -- and thank God he could do it,” Col said.
“He’s a horror fan and he was so brilliant. It was a dream come true for him –- in this role he got to do all those little maniacal bits he’s always dreamed of doing.”
“With Olivia (DeJonge), you really didn’t have to give her much direction at all,” Cam said.
“She’s only 17 but she has a great understanding of drama and character -- and the genre. It all comes down to instincts and she’s a natural.”
The guys said completing the filming in just four weeks was particularly challenging.
“It was exhausting, they always are. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve got to make them, they’re hard work,” Col said.
“But they’re always fun and as difficult as it can be sometimes, as soon as it’s over, you’re missing it. You’re looking to get started on the next one. I don’t know where last year went; we were only rolling cameras on this a year ago.”
Fear rules, OK?
The brothers said they loved making horror movies as the genre tapped into primal human instincts.
“It’s confronting that feeling when you’re watching a horror film, it’s some primal, vital fight or flight experience,” Col said.
“That a film can elicit a physical reaction whether that’s sweaty plans or the heart rate – there’s something really primal, and exciting, about that.”
So, did they have any sweaty-palmed moments filming at the abandoned asylum?
“I was open, I was ready – I wanted to see spectres or some matronly apparition,” Col said.
“The most that happened to me was that a rat ran over my foot. We were holed up in the old nurses’ quarters that they’ve turned into a hotel, and there was a blackout. The lady there said she heard something upstairs, and then a rat scurried over our feet. That was a little bit creepy. And that night I didn’t sleep so great.
“A lot of the crew do have stories; the guys from the art department who were packing up stuff late one night reckon they heard a mass of people screaming and crying, like 50 people.
“A few days later they’d found some clippings about a fire or a riot that described the scene they’d heard -- that was pretty weird.”
Scare Campaign will screen at the shooting location of Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum on March 19. It will also screen at: Lido Cinema in Melbourne on March 17; Z Ward Lunatic Asylum in Adelaide on March 24; Perth’s Backlot Studios on March 29 and the Gold Coast Film Festival on April 1.