Primal. 2010. Directed & Written by Josh Reed.
Starring Zoë Gameau, Krew Boylan, Lindsay Farris, Rebekah Foord, Damien Freeleagus, & Wil Traval.
Primal Films / AV Pictures / Known Associates
Not Rated / 80 minutes
Adventure / Horror / Sci-fi / Thriller
★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)Australian horror films have gotten better and better over the past twenty years, from the Wolf Creek films to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Snowtown, The Loved Ones, and many more. Not that Australian horror wasn’t good before, it’s just that the nation’s output of scary stories in the cinema has decidedly increased since the new millennium. While 2010’s Primal won’t make a lot of other critics’ lists, neither is it in the league of the other aforementioned titles, it’s an impressive horror slightly ahead of its time as it’s one directed by a white male filmmaker and explores the violence inherent in the combination of settler colonialism and patriarchy.
Sounds like a whole lot of fun, doesn’t it? Some people do eat each other, and there’s a weird monster in a cave. Could be worse, no?
Dace (Wil Traval) is an anthropology student, looking to study ancient symbols in an Australian cave. He and his friends—Mel (Krew Boylan), Anja (Zoe Tuckwell-Smith), Chad (Lindsay Farris), Kris (Rebekah Foord), Warren (Damien Freeleagus)—take a long trip to the location. A trip for Dace to document the symbols turns sour quickly. First, Kris is attacked by a mutant rabbit. Next we see Mel get bitten by leeches, waking up mutated the next day and suddenly craving human flesh. The group of friends try to deal with Mel’s terrifying state, but the terror gradually gets worse.
And there’s something much scarier lurking in the cave, too.In some ways Primal goes against the idea of the ‘Indian burial ground’ so prevalent in horror over the past hundred years, by going to a place of literal Indigenous history. Also, the film’s plot is effectively about a bunch of white people fucking around and finding out, not quite respecting the histories of the Aboriginal land Dace wants to study, as if he’s the first person to have discovered the cave’s art. The fact the film uses the temporal setting of 12,000 years ago in an opening sequence tied to the rock art Dace seeks to study is an important piece of this reading, situating the story in a timeframe that connects the rock art to the Gwion Gwion paintings. In 1891, Joseph Bradshaw happened upon the paintings and for a long time, as so many things found by colonisers are fated, they were known by his name. Because when white people find things they assume they’re the first people to see them, and they call it discovery.
Similarly in the film, Dace claims nobody’s seen the cave paintings in “150 years.” True? Or is it just that no white eyes have seen it? If white folks haven’t seen it or heard of it, then it doesn’t exist in their coloniser mindset. Even better is the scene when Dace and Kris talk about what the paintings could mean, and there’s not a Black face to be found; they have no way of interpreting the symbols using Aboriginal knowledge, only their settler colonialist perspective. They have no way of knowing about anything that might be out in those woods waiting for them, and the mural suggests even the Indigenous person who dies in the opening sequence knew of something evil in that cave. Primal is really all about white people incapable of reading, and heeding, the warnings/teachings of Indigenous people, which results in them walking headlong into danger.
White people in Primal aren’t only ignorant of Indigenous land and its history, they also don’t care for nature in general. “Fucking nature. What‘s the point? What‘s it ever done for me? Fucking nothing,” says a male character. This isn’t just part of the film it’s inherent in actual white Australian culture to disregard the Aboriginal histories that came before them tied directly to the land itself. A year prior the film’s 2010 release, half the known Gwion Gwion art had been affected and 30% of the rock art in total had been entirely destroyed by aerial fire-bombing and back burning that’s part of the Australian government’s wildfire prevention strategy. As much as white men in the film disregard Aboriginal rock art and the land, they definitely don’t forget to disrespect and abuse women.
The colonialism and the anti-nature attitudes of the male characters in Primal ties into the film’s depiction of white men and their misogyny, in that the white man disrespects women similar to the way he disrespects Mother Nature and Indigenous history. The word “cunt” is frequently used in the film, and it’s the final line. Anja’s treated like “a born victim,” and she calls herself one. Mel calls her boyfriend a “whiny little bitch,” as well as remarks how he’s “malfunctioning” because he doesn’t like the word cunt, illustrating how women can play into toxic masculine attitudes and misogynistic behaviour. During a skinny dipping scene, Chad chastises Mel, telling her to “have a bit of fucking dignity,” just because of her overt sexuality, as an attempt to police her behaviour. The worst instance of misogyny in the dialogue comes when Dace says to Chad: “She‘s your girlfriend. Why don‘t you try tying a leash?” Women in the film are portrayed as victims, they’re called cunts, or they’re compared to dogs.
At a certain point Woman becomes the Other of colonialism’s patriarchal aims in Primal after Mel’s viewed by Dace as so-called “savage” because she’s infected with the twelve-millennia old virus, and now she must be exterminated. “It‘s us or her, dickhead,” Dace says, literally creating an Us v. Them situation, the traditional juxtaposition of the white settler mind; if you don’t understand it, kill it.
Nearing the end of the film we see a hideous creature dwelling in the mysterious cave. The monstrous thing attacks Adja, attaching itself to her vagina, assumedly seeking to impregnate her. It’s also already done the same thing to Kris, who ironically earlier told Adja her only mission in life is to “have babies.” The creature is symbolic of all the evil of patriarchy, a force that acts as the foundation for other systems like capitalism, colonialism, fascism, and so on; one of the original evils of the world. It represents an ancient patriarchal force in its parallel with the evil patriarchal humans walking around in the everyday world. Anja’s briefly trapped in the cave with the creature exactly like she was once locked in a basement by a psychotic boyfriend, which we hear about briefly when Anja talks with Chad over the fire. Kris is a white woman who bears the brunt of settler patriarchy’s destruction of the natural world and its ignorance of everything they cannot claim to have made or discovered. But Anja’s previous experience with the misogynistic violence of men prompts her into action, unwilling to allow the patriarchal virus stemming from the cave monster to infect her friends, even if it means killing one of her infected friends. She’s the film’s Final Girl, a woman unwilling to let settler patriarchy’s way of life triumph, killing the monster.
“You’ve been a bad, bad girl.”
At first, Primal feels like a throwaway genre film that mashes together slasher tropes with a sci-fi and horror hybrid about a virus that’s been around at least 12,000 years. Underneath the slightly cliche plot of pretty people going into the woods and facing terrible things is a story about the ways settler colonialism and patriarchy have ravaged the natural world, and how that’s coming back to bite all of us.
Colonialism is a horrific force that white settlers have brought to every corner of the Earth. White folks didn’t invent evil, but we absolutely nurtured it and we continue to help it grow in new, devious ways. Yet before capitalism or colonialism, patriarchy and misogynistic ideologies ruled the world. To incels and MRAs it’s all buzzwords, but the rest of us know the truth: patriarchy, and the men who reinforce it daily, have destroyed the natural world and everything they decided to build upon its bones.