Welcome to Woop Woop Review – Stephan Elliott’s Magnificent Eccentric Exercise in Outback Bacchanalia Stripped Bare

One thing that unites the two sides of Woop Woop is the regular run of ‘Rogersun’ screenings. We hear of the fabled ‘Rogersun’ early on from Angie, with Susie Porter delivering a belter of a rendition of I Cain’t Say No:

Rogersun …you know, Rogersun Hammerstein. You know … (she sings) ‘I’m just a girl who can’t say no… I’m in a terrible fix…

and then thankfully get to experience it in full blown brilliance later on when the entirety of Woop Woop sits down to watch The Sound of Music, embracing the often misheard line: ‘what is it you can’t face?’ and shouting it out in unison.

There’s a subtle mastery to the inclusion of Rodgers and Hammerstein music that helps inform the time-capsule like nature of Woop Woop itself, with each inhabitant feeling like they’ve stepped right out of the 1950s. There’s more to seeing a town becoming stuck in a cultural bubble of Julie Andrews and co singing grand musical numbers than just Stephan Elliott wanting to give his film a killer soundtrack and some quirky musical moments. This is him building the notion that Woop Woop was once the last stop for film prints as they toured around Aus is one that’s barely touched upon in the film, but the logical notion of how the ‘Rogersun’ films ended up in Woop Woop, and the subsequent defection of Woop Woop from the entirety of Australia, feels organic.

When Angie’s introduced to Sonny and Cher, she recoils in disgust, reminding how eagerly Daddy-O wants to keep his kids and grandkids stuck in his 1950s mindset. Avoid the new stuff, only listen to the old stuff. Anything new is evil, and anything foreign must be destroyed. His anger fosters an isolation that breeds a different kind of culture, one where the lyrics of songs don’t match up, the names of the artists aren’t even right, where an anger-driven perspective of the world, one where their problems can be blamed on the existence of people they’ll never meet.

It’s a mindset that Australia has found hard to shake, and while we are continually told that we’re an open, empathetic country, the fact we’ve consistently voted in a right leaning, conservative government, that actively harms and affects the exact kinds of people that the occupants of Woop Woop would scorn and criticise for simply existing suggests otherwise.

In his review, Todd McCarthy called Welcome to Woop Woop a ‘nightmarish version of The Wizard of Oz[4]’, and he’s not wrong. Yet, instead of gaining a heart, a brain, and some courage, Teddy is dragged into the depths of despair, depravity, and a hedonistic lifestyle that should swiftly claim the life of any worn out individual.

Which brings us to Dog Day.

In the most inflammatory sequence of the film, the manic Woop Woop-ites engage in their yearly celebration of Dog Day: a day where they all take up arms and shoot all the dogs in Woop Woop dead. Teddy, manoeuvring himself into becoming an honorary Aussie, adopts a Blue Heeler, quickly becoming fast friends, only to have that blooming relationship cut short as his dog is slain dead as retribution after Dog Day. It’s an act that further divides Teddy and Woop Woop, and acts as the trigger point for his eventual escape from the town. 

There’s something to be said about the horrifying repulsion the Woop Woop-ites have to dogs. The iconography of a bloke and his faithful dog means little in Woop Woop, where pups exist as scavengers, creatures brought in to fill the air with life, only to be slain on an annual day of canine carnage. They’re moving targets, ready for the youth of the town to practice their aim, and play a bit of ‘sport’. A lot can be said about people who fail to love or care about animals and the association with how they feel about the world at large, and it’s devoutly clear that the manner that dogs and kangaroos are despised in Woop Woop reflects the manner they despise the world that rejected them. 

It’s quite likely that Teddy wasn’t the only one looking for the exit, with audience members likely being as inflamed by the carnage of Dog Day. The old Hollywood rule that says ‘don’t kill the dog’ is one that Stephan Elliott clearly rejects.

Yet, the act of Dog Day almost feels like Elliott is giving certain audience members the final push if they still find some kind of affection or affinity for the inhabitants of Woop Woop, making them finally recognise the depraved and cruel nature that the town operates. Or, Elliott just decided that losing even more audience members was the right thing to do. It’s as if he’s asking, have I lost you yet? 

During production, he almost lost the cast and crew as well:

For Dog Day, art director Colin Gibson went into Alice Springs and did a deal with vets, asking them to freeze any dogs that had died. When they got out their first frozen dog, they discovered it melted in the temperatures in “about 3 minutes”, so Colin got the idea of cutting the dogs in half, so that they could be made to look like two dead dogs. So he got out the chainsaw and fired it up, and that, according to Elliott, is when they had cast and crew rebellion number three. “Stefan was going too far again, so all the frozen dogs were put back on ice and that was the end of it”.[5]

The entire production history of Welcome to Woop Woop is well worth reading about, given it’s quite simply one of the most turbulent and fascinating productions in Australia’s history. I highly recommend seeking out Michael Winkler’s excellent book, Fahfangoolah! The Despised and Indispensable Welcome to Woop Woop.

Personally, the notion of using genuine dead dogs, especially from an unknown origin, borders on the pale a little too much for me. My tolerance for the macabre and extreme is high, but when it comes to people’s companions, I find that aspect utterly grotesque in all the wrong ways. And while they didn’t decide to follow that route, to know that it came close is eye opening at the very least.

That notion alone makes me question my own ethics of being less than happy with the idea of dead dogs being used on a big budget film, while at the same time being – apparently – comfortable with the use of truckloads of kangaroo carcasses to film a pet food canning scene. Because the kangaroos were ‘ethically’ hunted – see the devastating documentary Kangaroo: A Love Hate Story for more on that – apparently makes the use of their tortured bodies as glorified props ‘ok’, when the truth is quite different. While I don’t have hard facts on hand right now, it almost feels like the iconic kangaroo is seen on Australian screens more as a carcass, or road kill, than as an actual wild creature itself. Maybe it’s just because sequences like this one in Woop Woop and the famed kangaroo hunt in Wake in Fright sear into your mind with impressive ferocity.

The array of dead dogs and kangaroos (all acquired from a local roo shoot), fits in perfectly with Elliott’s filmography, one that routinely operates in the death, destruction, and carnage of animals and their corpses. The exploding whale covering the town in gristle and rotting flesh, or the tethered turtle, walking a futile path around the hills hoist in Swinging Safari, or the belligerent sheep, dressed in drag in A Few Best Men, and even the unfortunate Chihuahua in Easy Virtue, smothered to death by a woman’s behind, all hint at a director who carries a certain level of disdain for the rest of the animal kingdom. Sure, Elliott’s owned dogs, but he also clearly loves getting a rise out of his audience by topping a beloved creature off on screen. 

It’s not just animals that Elliott despises, as he seems to have a continued disdain for almost everyone, which is part of what makes his films so darn entertaining for me, as they continually carry a lack of care about what people will think of their final product. He’s a boundary pushing artist who has made a habit of exploring the aspects of society that many have considered utterly depraved or existing purely on the fringes of the world.

And it’s those fringes in Woop Woop that make it purely unique, bizarre, and utterly joyous. It’s what has me revisiting the film year in, year out, to immerse myself in a world that feels like a skewed version of a reality I once knew. I know that Welcome to Woop Woop isn’t a film that represents who the rural folks of Australia truly are – these are caricatures, larger than life and exaggerated to the supreme – but it’s also a film that reminds me the most of my time going around Australia.

Nostalgia drives so much of what we love in cinema and television. As film critic Alonso Duralde says about those who love the film Space Jam, did you see Space Jam now, or were you eight? We can’t help but approach the films that we grew up with with a level of affection and adoration that they may otherwise not deserve, and while we kid ourselves into believing that they are actually good films, the reality is often quite different.

That knowledge and reality won’t let me stop loving Welcome to Woop Woop. It’s a film that I skipped school multiple times to watch, relishing the manner it transported me to the caravan in Alice Springs with the man chopping up roo carcasses to feed his dog, or to the frozen 1950s mindset of Longreach where teachers who lament the loss of the cane go to die. The aspects of Woop Woop may repulse, or aggravate viewers, but Elliott’s keen desire to satirise what he saw thriving within Australia feels all too familiar to me.

Admittedly, there may be a broad section of Australian cinema that actively villainises the occupants of rural towns, making it into a wasteland of racist thugs and violent men who want to tear you into two. Welcome to Woop Woop is, at its core, a farce. It’s full of absurdities, eccentricities, and cultural tchotchke’s that should, ideally, not reflect the reality of Australia. But, coming back to Stephan Elliott’s statement about what he saw when making Priscilla, and the mindset he moved into making Woop Woop with:

I saw another side of Australia out there. I nearly got my head bashed in about four times. I thought, ‘Okay, hang on, we don’t put these parts in Priscilla, do we?’ But that really is what I wanted this new film to be about.

it’s hard not to break the realisation that what we see in Welcome to Woop Woop is what Stephan Elliott was seeing of Australia in the nineties. It’s a reflection of an Australia that I saw too, one that was pushed, morphed, and nudged by international culture into something that became its own beast. Woop Woop showcases a 1950’s mindset that seems to have captured much of the Australian population. While it’s charming to see an isolated world absorbed in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, it’s equally absorbing to see that world refuse the wheels of time, slamming on the brakes of change and demanding their own societal safety net.

And yet, while I personally find familiarity with the iconography within Welcome to Woop Woop, and Elliott felt he was reflecting the world he saw, there are just as many who gaze upon this film and see a narrative that actively tries to offend and ridicule the people of rural Australia. I can’t criticise those readings, especially given the identity of rural Australians becomes the foundations of how they see and interact with society at large, but all I can say is that what Elliott is presenting here is not an analogous representation of all of rural Australia. This is a heightened example of subset of people who seek isolation in the outback because the urbanisation of Australia is smothering their existence.   

Yet, the reality within Australian cinema is that this kind of heightened representation of rural Australia has found extremely fertile ground. It provided the foundation for a horrifying critique of masculinity in the masterpiece that is Wake in Fright, where the remote towns of Australia have never felt as threatening, and later terrified in a different manner with the beastly Razorback. As I continue to cherry pick examples, we continue to see that the horror genre loves amplifying the more unsavoury aspects of rural life, with Killing Ground and Two Heads Creek (a film clearly inspired by the celebration and condemnation of right-leaning Australians in Welcome to Woop Woop, even if it was slightly hesitant to jump completely into the Bacchanalia of Woop Woop) both pushing the extremes of the rural identity. But, then we take a glimpse at the documentary Hotel Coolgardie, which presents an unsettling view of a rural pub, where the relative safety of two imported barmaids is constantly in question, and we’re left to ask: is this all there is?

That in itself is a loaded question, one that can easily be reputed by presenting harmonious and considered documentaries like Backtrack Boys and Zach’s Ceremony, which present the outback and rural regions as supportive and community focused fields that want to provide positive grounds for the younger generations to grow and mature. Additionally, I’ve personally found great comfort in Alina Lodkina’s subtle drama, Strange Colours, that plays like a deeply empathetic Kelly Reichardt-adjacent take on Wake in Fright. And, recently, the Christmas comedy, A Sunburnt Christmas, showed the struggler spirit of rural towns in a powerful manner, and Robert Connolly’s amplified that same struggler motif in the taut thriller The Dry

Each of these stories, alongside Welcome to Woop Woop, represents different aspects of the white rural culture within Australia. They may not perfectly overlap with reality, but they reflect a world that feels, at times, genuine. Fiction, and to an extent, non-fiction, thrives on drama and the manipulation of reality to help create narrative intrigue, it just so happens that Stephan Elliott’s presentation of that is so absurdly over the top that it becomes its own frenetic beast, unable to be tamed by anyone.

It’s worthwhile mentioning that plenty of these narratives almost wilfully ignore the Indigenous Australian experience, and, when they do represent them, it’s often misunderstood or ill-informed. Jake Wilson’s interview with icon David Gulpilil is full of essential quotes, but the permeating reality is that many white directors neglect to appreciate the differences in Indigenous characters on screen, notably leading Gulipil to laugh about his characters fate in Walkabout, another rural-centric Australian fable. He does highlight though that there are non-Indigenous directors, like Rolf de Heer, who explore Indigenous characters from an informed and respectful perspective.

What we see on screen reflects how we think about a culture and society, and while there has been a complex layering of the white Australian identity on screen, a film like Welcome to Woop Woop eagerly builds up a pyre of cultural cringe to almost destroy any good will that has been built up. As I’ve mentioned, there have certainly been grand steps within Australian cinema to try and improve the image of rural towns, so much so that maybe both supporters and detractors of Welcome to Woop Woop can look at Elliott’s bizarre masterpiece and say: well, we can’t ever do that again, let’s try something different.

For me, Welcome to Woop Woop feels like the start of complicated reparations of trying to bond the right and left of Australia. My identity is that of being a white Australian. My father is an immigrant from England, and my mother is a first generation Australian, born to parents who emigrated from Scotland. We come from a history of white privilege, and as such, part of that legacy is knowing the relationship that white Australia has with the Indigenous Australians that this land was taken from.

It’s also knowing the danger of being stuck in an archaic mindset, where we fail to evolve past a generation that thought the White Australia policy was a good idea and should never have been removed. It’s knowing what continued isolation can do to a culture, and how that affects the minds of the people living there. To reference the opening of The Herd’s always timely song 77%, it’s knowing that what is shown here in Welcome to Woop Woop, is not only farcical, it was immoral.

That opening speech that Daddy-O makes about Woop Woop being worth fighting for comes after his outwardly racist tirade that slams Indigenous folk for not wanting the tainted asbestos mine land back after it had been destroyed, and how the cities – ‘Sydney. Fremantle.’ – have too many red lights, too many pollies, too many reffos, too much fucking chaos, in a manner that shows how wilfully ignorant Daddy-O is about the reality of the increasing modernity of the rapidly oncoming world. This isn’t to suggest that modernity brings progressiveness, but rather, through continued societal upheaval and changes, through protests and community movements, a gradual, glacial shift brings the overdue ideology of ‘equality’ to those who have been routinely denied its fruits due to an oppressive society.

Daddy-O, titan of the outback, stands as a figure who feels out of time, as if he arrived two decades earlier than he should have. It’s hard not to see Rod Taylor’s beetroot emblazoned face, with burst capillary upon burst capillary erupting after tirade upon tirade, standing alongside the equally beetroot emblazoned career politicians like Bob Katter or Barnaby Joyce, representatives of the areas that Daddy-O would have further isolated him and his fellow Woop Woop-ites from. Equally vegetable-adjacent is the noxious rhetoric spewing right-leaning politician, Peter Dutton, whose own words could be easily supplanted into Daddy-O’s dialogue, and yet, they’d feel right at home.

Great cinema holds a mirror up to who we are, and reflects back the possibilities of who we can be. It just so happens that the mirror that Stephan Elliott chose is broken, scratched, and covered in a black mould that infects everyone that inhales it. It’s Julie Andrews blaring guns on the top of a hillside, it’s a warning siren, an unexpected giant kangaroo from the void, crashing down and hastening an escape.

There’s an unbridled mania to Welcome to Woop Woop that feels like a rarity in Australian cinema, where a filmmaker has been allowed to unleash a creative cyclone that tears everything asunder. Its cinematic brethren are the equally maligned films like George Miller’s porcine sequel Babe: Pig in the City, and Baz Luhrmann’s melodramatic epic Australia; directing opportunities where creative freedom ran wild. As the decades have worn on, the ability for a filmmaker to weave a genre breaking and boundary pushing narrative on film has effectively dried up, especially from an Australian filmmakers perspective.

What we end up with is a homogenous library of cinematically similar films, mostly adhering to a prescriptive idea of what kind of cinematic experience the funding bodies want to craft a catalogue of. That’s another blanket statement that deserves further assessment elsewhere, but it’s worthwhile interrogating given the similar state of Australian film nowadays.

For many Aussie filmmakers, when they’re presented with a global smash hit like Priscilla, they take the opportunity to make a go of it in the US, but whether you stand on the love it or hate it side of Woop Woop, there’s something that deserves celebrating about Elliott’s defiance as a filmmaker, seizing an opportunity to make the exact kind of film he wanted to, even if Elliott has often hinted at a strong desire to go back into the editing room and craft a darker, deeper directors cut.

As I’ve been writing and revisiting this piece throughout the past few months, I’ve found myself revisiting Welcome to Woop Woop with greater frequency than usual. Dipping in, rewatching scenes, immersing myself in the humdrum radio chatter that washes over the town, castigating Woop Woop for leaving a renegade shopping trolley outside the school. I’ve grown to realise that there’s something fantastically comfortable about this film, something that prods and pokes my mind as each scene explodes in feverish fashion. While this might sound overly hyperbolic, I keep finding myself astounded by the creative genius Elliott and co. are working with, the result of which has seeped into my mind and stained the carpets. I could try and scrub it out, but I won’t, the red blemish is too appealing and I’ve grown to realise that it’s become part of who I am as a film lover, and as an Australian.

I love Welcome to Woop Woop for its mania and madness, for Elliott’s unbridled direction and decision making. For the manner that Jonathan Schaech, Susie Porter, and Rod Taylor, thrust themselves with vigour into their roles. For the creative decision to set a dead woman alight in a bonfire upon a pyre of XXXX cans, and then to have her fart when her corpse bursts. For the creation of cinematic images that are impossible to erase from your mind, hidden behind a tastefully presented set of beef curtains.

I love it for how it makes me feel closer to being Australian. As horrifying as the actions of Daddy-O and his cohorts are, I look at Woop Woop as a film that helps me address, ridicule, and reconcile with the toxic mindset of some of most powerful people in the country, and their many supporters. As a counterpoint to what’s on display, it also helps remind me that while Australians can be a fairly navel gazing bunch of people, we also do a stellar job of looking outwards and embracing the world at large, and celebrating our multicultural foundations. Yes, we’re a country that’s constantly at war with itself, about what it means to be Australian, about who we are as a community, but Woop Woop celebrates that war, leading to the realisation that Elliott’s intention of offending just about everyone worked.  

There’s a chaotic harmony to Daddy-O’s enclosed community, one that carries the baton of countless other self-ostracized Aussies who have deemed the cities as being too restrictive, too caustic, too oppressive for their way of life. I think of the teacher in Longreach, away from the world they once were part of, helping mould and nourish younger generations with knowledge, and how they resorted to a life of solitude in a remote location, allowing a toxic mindset to simmer away, bubbling with distrust. Or the man with his dog, carving out a circular existence of scouring the roads for carcasses of our dwindling fauna, making a stew out of their bodies, and waking up the following day to do it all again. For some, that isolation is a necessity, a sanctuary.

It’s easy to point fingers, and to criticise, especially when the actions of the few are actively destructive and harmful, but as a rebuttal to that, Welcome to Woop Woop says, what other choice did these people have?

When I had the great opportunity to interview Stephan Elliott upon the release of Swinging Safari, the first thing I did was apologise for not financially adding to the box office of Welcome to Woop Woop. Look, I didn’t exactly boost Black Dog into becoming a massive box office success either, but I do regret not being able to throw money behind Woop Woop at the time. Its legacy now stands as a genuine cult film, with its lovers and champions standing behind it proudly, and that means more than any box office total can attest to. Elliott’s stature as an Australian film icon will always be because of Priscilla, but for the many champions, we know deep down inside it’s because of Woop Woop.   

Watching Welcome to Woop Woop with 2021 eyes, I’m left with the tinnitus-like ringing from our Prime Minister about him being a leader for the ‘quiet Australians’, and I can’t shake the feeling that the people of Woop Woop are who he has in mind when he says that. Yet, if we drove him out to the crater in the desert, and left him there, then he’d get to see how loud and chaotic they really are.  

And with that in mind, my relationship with Welcome to Woop Woop reflects my relationship with Australia. I’m conflicted. I love this country, and yet, I equally despise it for what it has become. I love Welcome to Woop Woop, and yet, I can equally loathe the manner that Elliott celebrates political incorrectness. Yet, unlike the horrifying path that Australia is leading itself down (inaction on climate change, human rights violations, denial of Indigenous rights), I can’t help but applaud, embrace, and champion Stephan Elliott’s multifaceted monster of a film, no matter how grotesque or horrifying it is.

After all, it’s fair dinkum.

It’s Australia.

Director: Stephan Elliott

Cast: Johnathon Schaech, Rod Taylor, Susie Porter

Writers: Michael Thomas, Stephan Elliott, (based on the novel The Dead Heart by Douglas Kennedy)

[1] https://www.filmink.com.au/rude-crude-fin-lewd-making-welcome-woop-woop/

[2] This is without even mentioning the expensive non-green screen aerial shot of a trained cockatoo flying near the Statue of Liberty.

[3] https://www.ozmovies.com.au/movie/welcome-to-woop-woop

[4] https://variety.com/1997/film/reviews/welcome-to-woop-woop-1117432692/

[5] https://www.ozmovies.com.au/movie/about/welcome-to-woop-woop#about

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