Review: Dark Whispers – Vol. 1

By Harris Dang

Before this review can proceed, a few significant stigmas need to be pointed out. The first one is how short films are seen to be inferior to feature-length films just due to the fact that they are short. While the second one is how female filmmakers are thought to be averse to genre filmmaking; particularly the horror genre. Nothing could be further from the truth, as these statements are fatuous, demeaning and stupid.

Anthologies and short films have been calling cards for many renowned filmmakers regardless of genre eg. Andrea Arnold‘s Oscar-winning short film Wasp (2003); while female filmmakers have been making many stellar examples of genre filmmaking — eg. Jennifer Kent‘s The Babadook (2014), Mary Harron‘s “American Psycho” (2000), Julia Ducournau‘s “Raw” (2017) and many, many more.

Now we have the latest horror anthology from Australia, “Dark Whispers – Vol. 1” (2019). Similar to “XX” (2017), the film is comprised of ten horror shorts all written/directed by women; headlined by creator/director/producer Megan Riakos (who directs the framework around the shorts) and producer Leonie Mansfield. As is the norm with anthologies, they are majorly seen to be inconsistent; with highs and lows defining the quality of the final product. Will “Dark Whispers – Vol. 1” win over horror fans by providing consistent quality shorts?

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  • BIRTHDAY GIRL
    Director: Angie Black; Writer: Michael Harden

Commencing to a great start, “Birthday Girl” is an engaging mood-setter for things to come, as it effectively establishes the film’s emotional throughline of the emotional burden of one’s past with nuance and brevity. The film opens in a darkly lit hospital, introducing us to a visibly distraught woman, who is grieving over the passing of her loved one.

Director Black deftly relies on silence, the evocative cinematography by Richard Hosking and her actors (Sarah Bollenberg and Michaela Teschendorff-Harden as mother and daughter respectively) to deliver a sense of dread which culminates into an ambiguous, yet touching conclusion.

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  • THE MAN WHO CAUGHT A MERMAID
    Writer/Director: Kaitlin Tinker; Writer: Jean-Phillipe Lopez

From the supernatural to the fantastical, writer/director Tinker’s short gives exactly what the title promises; and it is genre-bending fun. The film follows an elderly man who fights through adversity and contempt from those around him (including his fisherman mates and his wife) who sets out to catch a mermaid.

The story delves into obsession, self-delusion and the power trips of men through flights of fancy, dark humour and menace; with an assured directorial hand by Tinker and great performances from the cast (Roy Barker is great as the lead). Alongside the engagingly lo-fi makeup by Russell Sharp (on Bilby Conway as the titular creature), the musical score (which guides the tone shifts smoothly) and a bleak climax; this is one of the best shorts in the anthology.

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  • GLOOMY VALENTINE
    Writer/Director: Isabel Peppard; Writer: Warwick Burton

The lone animated short in the anthology, director Peppard brings a sense of weirdness to the proceedings; conveying the mood of being lovelorn and coming to terms with one’s past effectively with haunting visuals and a stirring musical score, all within a short running time.

The film follows the story of Gloomy, a young woman who is struggling to overcome the depression of heartbreak. The visuals may be a bit too dense and esoteric for some, while the gore can overwhelm the ideas on display but overall, it is a compelling short that delivers the gloom with spades.

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  • WATCH ME
    Director: Briony Kidd; Writer: Claire d’Este

From the fantastical to the comical, director Kidd brings a devilishly funny take on the female gaze. The film follows a narcissistic, insecure actress (Astrid Wells Cooper) who truly believes she will literally die if she is deprived of the gaze of her steady boyfriend (Tosh Greenslade) or her long-suffering personal assistant (Jazz Yap).

With a fun, pantomime performance from Cooper, good support from Greenslade and especially Yap — whose double-takes bring much amusement — Sam King‘s off-kilter lighting/cinematography that lends a surrealistic vibe; and incisive pokes on celebrity culture, “Watch Me” is a real winner.

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  • STORYTIME
    Writer/Director: Jub Clerc; Writer: Sylvia Clarke

The story follows two kids in the Kimberley (in Western Australia) who mischievously venture into the mangroves (shrubs); following on from a campfire story from the Gooynbooyn Woman, believing her stories to be the stuff of myth and legend. Or so they thought.

The lone indigenous short, “Storytime” is one of the most visually arresting entries that manages to blend Aboriginal culture with an appealing campfire horror story and a childlike sensibility to evoke a beautifully gripping nightmarish vision that is sure to creep out audiences.

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  • WHITE SONG
    Writer/Director: Katrina Irawati Graham

The story follows Raesita, a batik artist whose heavy grief after the death of her husband draws the ghost to her. From thereon, it is a battle between Raesita and the Kuntilnak until the realization that Raesita’s unborn child comes into the picture; whose presence is one that Kuntilanak did not count on.

Similar to “Storytime”, “White Song” takes its inspirations from the famous Indonesian ghost story of Kuntilanak to deliver an eerie ghost story that benefits from Graham’s immersive storytelling and the dreamy, meditative pacing. Unfortunately, the film is too elliptical to wholly succeed and would have benefited if there were more development in its background details.

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  • GRILLZ
    Director: Lucy Gouldthorpe; Writer: Claire d’Este

“Grillz” follows a woman going through a series of online dates, where it is gradually revealed that she is a vampire and uses the app of Tinder as a means of finding easy prey. With the same creative forces behind “Watch Me”, the anthology goes back to comedy, with the short utilizing the horror staple of vampirism in a modern setting.

“Grillz” makes the most out of its one-joke premise by providing an alluringly unruly performance by Melanie Irons, subverting vampire tropes with wit and ending with an amusing punchline that makes sense out of its title; all under the striking cinematography by Sam King, which calls to mind another post-modern vampire flick, Ana Lily Amirpour‘s “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” (2014).

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  • LITTLE SHAREHOUSE OF HORRORS
    Writer/Director: Madeleine Purdy; Writer: Joel Perlgut

This short by the creators of web series “Girt by Fear” follows the story of a woman (Georgia Wilkinson-Derums, credited as Georgia Wilde) who steals a hallucinogenic plant known as the Devil’s Blossom, in which she plans to make a beverage out of. She lives with a pair of roommate slackers (who smoke out of their bongs, hilariously made with a ketchup bottle and a hose line) who constantly belittle her. When she is outside tending her garden, the slackers consume the beverage and it is at this point where it gets trippy.

As expected from the title (being a reference to the hit musical, “Little Shop of Horrors” [1960]), writer/director Purdy delivers an enjoyably rambunctious romp that subverts the proverbial saying “you are what you eat”, with wonderfully over-the-top performances from its cast, a knowingly absurd sense of humour and amusing practical effects.

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  • THE RIDE
    Writer/Director: Marion Pilowsky; Story by Issy Pilowsky

Set in the merry old land of England, the story follows a hitchhiker (an English Ed Speleers) who accepts a lift into town from a random salt-of-the-earth driver (a so-not English Anthony LaPaglia), only to be led into an act of connivance after the driver commits a reprehensible act.

Finding the horror as well as the dark comedy of the generational gap, “The Ride” does hit most of its targets; bolstered by a ridiculous performance from LaPaglia (whose attempt at an accent is along the lines of Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins” [1964]) and great support from Speleers (whose reactions to LaPaglia’s despicable acts provide plenty of laughs). The only flaw is the predictable punchline at the end, but “The Ride” is good while it lasts.

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  • THE INTRUDER
    Writer/Director: Janine Hewitt

The short starts off in a dark and stormy night, following the character of Zoe (Asher Keddie), who is home alone and is being harassed by a stalker. With the authorities being irrelevant due to their extreme lethargy, the stalker lurks ever so closer. But over time does Zoe realize, her stalker may be someone she has been acquainted with before.

The choice to end the anthology with “The Intruder” was an inspired one since it is the perfect one that brings the emotional throughline introduced in “Birthday Girl” full circle i.e. being institutionalized in their own figurative box of emotions and carrying/being given the emotional baggage of others over time.

The film starts off as a pastiche of 80’s horror films; thanks to the tactile cinematography by Ian Jones and the retro musical score by Justin Brandis and Bernard Kelly; which personally calls to this reviewer’s mind the goofy and subversive horror flick, Amy Holden Jones‘ “Slumber Party Massacre” (1982).

But then the film takes an 180° turn as another character enters the story and the short becomes more intimate and psychologically arresting; which leads to a remarkably stirring conclusion. Special credit must go to lead actresses Asher Keddie and Bree Desborough, who give their utmost to their roles and lend the necessary sincerity and conviction for the drama to work.

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  • THE BOOK OF DARK WHISPERS
    Writer/Director: Megan Riakos

In this framework short, we follow Clara (Andrea Demetriades), who arrives at her recently deceased mother’s home and finds a mysterious book from her mother. The film follows her reading the short stories, which come to life as the shorts, while the audience witnesses her stages of grief interspersed throughout the runtime.

As shown in prior examples over the years, the frameworks of anthologies, for the most part, do not really work on their own. The main reason for this is because audience investment is jarringly disrupted by the shorts and once the audience is back on track, they are off track again due to another short being introduced, which causes tonal whiplash.

Thankfully, Riakos manages to connect the dots in a thematically cohesive fashion by establishing the many motifs that perfectly segue in between the shorts and her own; which creates an unsettling mood. For example, after reading the story “Gloomy Valentine”, Carla finds handfuls of rose petals that inexplicably appear in the pockets of her knitted jacket, which was her mother’s.

But what really makes the short work is the amazing performance from Demetriades, as she manages to convey the different changing moods smoothly and convincingly; embodying the reactions of the audience of every short remarkably well. Her work also adds credence to the major themes, reflecting that one’s emotional burden will inevitably be passed down from generation to generation.

It is great to see horror projects that show that great horror cinema is about compelling ideas involving the human condition that make us tick and not just about copious amounts of blood and gore; and with a refreshing feminist viewpoint, “Dark Whispers – Vol. 1” absolutely delivers. Seeing as this is the first volume, it is a very promising start for more female filmmakers to showcase their talents. Highly recommended.
Seen at Monster Fest Sydney on November 3rd, 2019.
All the watercolour images were drawn by Melbourne-based Scarlette Baccini.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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