Dark Whispers: Volume 1

(various, Australia, 2019)


Dark Whispers is an anthology/omnibus film: a series of short stories connected by a framing device. I was struck by the fact that – just like in Mary Harron’s The Expecting (2020) styled for bite-sized chunks on the quickly defunct Quibi format – the horror or frisson effects get no chance for a slow-burn build: within some of the stories, the shocks or switches (of both content and form) start right in; just as, in the framing tale, it takes about 3 seconds for the solitary hero, Clara (Andrea Demetriades), to gaze at an old photo of her departed parents (she’s about to clean out their place) and feel a heavily audio-juiced chill …


This kind of project has a semi-reputable place in the history of cinema, and some outstanding exemplars (particularly from Italy, like The Witches [1967]) – although it’s hard to find one that hits top quality all the way through (usually, and to quote Meat Loaf, two out of three ain’t bad). There are different ways that producers have used to cohere package-movies: around a theme (Eros, 2004), an actor (Silvana Mangano in The Witches), an art form or medium (opera in Aria, 1987), a place (Paris vu par … in both 1964 and 1984), a political project (Far from Vietnam, 1967) …


Sometimes the conceit that binds the whole is ingenious and surprising, sometimes clumsy and obvious. Sometimes the pretext is mixed, possibly confused: Seven Women, Seven Sins (1986), for instance, boasts a typical 7-deadly-sins narrative mosaic, but it primarily exists to showcase the work of seven female filmmakers, including Chantal Akerman and Valie Export. Dark Whispers also has a dual focus: it’s a spotlight on the horror genre (anthologies are legion in this field), and it’s entirely directed by women – eleven in all. (There’s also plenty of women working in other cast or crew roles, such as writer Claire D’Este.) Plus: all of the directors are Australian. This hybrid concoction makes sense if one knows the exciting pocket of screen culture from which, in part, the project emerged: Tasmania’s Stranger with My Face festival/workshop/competition devoted to generating horror projects by women (I was privileged to be a guest there in 2012 – the festival event folded, for the time being, in 2017, but there are ongoing online seminars and related presentations).


However, there’s one big difference between Dark Whispers – only the first volume, it seems! – and most other anthology films, and it’s a difference discreetly unannounced in the final credits. Where most omnibus projects commission their diverse parts from scratch, Dark Whispers is a collection of pre-existing short films – some going as far back as 14 years (and several of which were showcased, in one form or another, at Stranger with My Face). And why not? – it’s an anthology-as-curation concept, well-suited to contemporary tendencies in the international art world. But this fact also helps explain the film’s sometimes disconcerting heterogeneity: it boasts not only a vivid excursion into stop-motion animation (Isabel Peppard’s Tim Burton-like Gloomy Valentine, 2006 – Peppard went on to co-direct the impressive documentary Morgana [2019]), but an extremely wide assortment of dramatic and comic tones. And the origins of the parts are also diverse: some are very low-budget independent productions, others are relatively handsomely resourced film-school assignments.


So, it’s best to take it in doses, one short film at a time. Megan Riakos’ wrap-around segment (strictly speaking, the only “new” material here) tries hard to get some quasi-narrative peaks and valleys going – the narrator-figure midway through burns in fright the “Dark Whispers” book bequeathed by her Mum, but it bounces back intact; a spooky figure peeks in through a door, and so on – but, however well mounted, it hardly pulls the diverse pieces together in any satisfying way. Just remember, even Wim Wenders had a hard time composing a decent framing story for the entirely separate episodes of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds (1995) – and the Master chopped out most of the Apprentice’s work anyhow, as painfully detailed in Wenders’ diary-book My Time with Antonioni!


Angie Black, maker of the excellent experimental feature The Five Provocations (2018), swiftly whips up the atmospherics in Birthday Girl (2008), as a hospital elevator takes a woman (Sarah Bollenberg) through the phantoms of her familial past. Like many shorts, it seems like a sketch for something that could have been developed much further – but, as is, it’s enough to make one wonder whether Pedro Costa saw and was inspired by it for the extended elevator sequence of his Horse Money (2015), first used as a stand-alone short in the anthology Centro Histórico (2012).


Briony Kidd (the mastermind behind Stranger with My Face) offers us a conceptual, meta-horror tale in the equally sketch-like Watch Me (2016): a celebrity (played by Astrid Wells Cooper) feels alive and “on” only when her fans are looking at her (even, it seems, when she goes to the loo) – and if all those eyes are taken away, the darkness literally closes in. It’s a neat and cinematic idea.


Lucy Gouldthorpe’s Grillz (2015) rides, with irony, the never-ending vampire craze – with a special stylistic nod to Abel Ferrara’s black-and-white The Addiction (1995), already a major source for Christos Tsiolkas’ 2005 novel Dead Europe filmed by Tony Krawitz in 2012. Marion Pilowsky’s The Ride (2011), featuring Anthony LaPaglia, veers more to psychological thriller than strictly supernatural horror (not a problem per se), but its anecdotal pay-off is too easily seen coming.


Janine Hewitt’s The Intruder (2005), shot on 35mm, is a formally accomplished riff on phantom visitation in a suitably Gothic house on a stormy night, with a Persona-like face-off of two women (Asher Keddie and Bree Desborough) – I liked it far better than Olivier Assayas’ similar mélange of elements in Personal Shopper (2016). Spirits also play a prominent part in Jub Clerc’s Storytime (2005), which connects to the indigenous spirituality mixed with genre-play of Tracey Moffatt’s influential, one-and-only feature Bedevil (1993) – and also inherits some of its problems as a realised work.


Kaitlin Tinker’s The Man Who Caught a Mermaid (2016) pulls a disconcerting, Polanski-like switcheroo in its surreal tale of a gormless guy’s dream-come-true – and this, in another odd parallel echo, was in the same year as Stephen Chow’s immortal comedy The Mermaid! The depiction of grimy suburbia – so prevalent in Australian cinema, whether shorts or features – is taken up a few notches in Madeleine Purdy’s eventually gory Little Share House of Horrors (an episode from the 6-part 2016 web series Girt by Fear viewable in its entirety at https://www.girtbyfear.com.au/), full of tricksy effects and camp gags. Is the young-adult share house indeed a principal motif of this national cinema? It’s certainly one of Australia’s soul-links with the UK.


The real gem, for me, in Dark Whispers is Katrina Irawati Graham’s White Song (2006) which, while standing way outside the framework of all other episodes, literally gets a few aural echoes in the framing story. Inspired by figures and tales from Indonesian mythology, this one plunges right into its weave of voice-over and heightened imagery (a little in the latter-day Terrence Malick vein) without giving the impression, for once, of leaping too fast into the terrain of the unknown.


It’s a gorgeous and haunting piece, and the only one in this omnibus that generates a genuine (and chilling) eroticism. Even its resolution-message of healing and rebirth – in water, no less! – works well and satisfyingly. Graham has made two other short films, and also co-written a 2016 telemovie. When will she get to make a true sequel to this splendid “white song of deep death”?

© Adrian Martin 30 May 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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