Eleven female directors from across Australia come together in DARK WHISPERS: VOLUME 1, making it exceptionally fitting for this anthology film, which presents horror through the female gaze, to have its European premiere at a festival which celebrates the “final girl”, the last woman standing in the horror genre.
The passing of stories along the maternal line is a tradition found in many cultures, with many of these tales containing important, yet at times cryptic, warnings about the difficulties young women can face when navigating their way through an often-cruel world. DARK WHISPERS tackles a variety of issues with a uniquely Australian voice while remaining culturally inclusive and depressingly practical in its feminist representations.
Although there is nothing revolutionary about the premise, a woman discovering a book of macabre tales amongst her deceased mother’s belongings, The Book of Dark Whispers (wr/dir: Megan Riakos) definitely makes sense as the vehicle, or the wraparound, for the story segments contained in this anthology. The subconscious pull to the dark side, especially when one is already dealing with the loss of a loved one, manifests here as Clara (Andrea Demetriades) fails to resist the whispers that draw her back to the mysterious book, despite the negative effects it seems to have on both herself and her surroundings.
The bittersweetness of loss and grief is carried through many of the segments, including the book’s first offering, Birthday Girl (dir: Angie Black). An interesting choice for the opening piece as it starts off the anthology with more of a fizzle than a bang, but it certainly lets the audience know that this is going to be more of a journey of dark thoughts, unsettling concepts, and difficult emotions, than a collection of gruesome deaths and jump scares. Visually effective and undeniably creepy, Birthday Girl is a ghostly tale that is somewhat predictable but moving nonetheless.
DARK WHISPERS does not leave much time to dwell on this first tale, before diving swiftly into the next: The Man Who Caught a Mermaid (wr/dir: Kaitlin Tinker). Feeding on Australia’s fascination with the mysteries of the sea, this story focuses on one man’s obsession to possess a type of woman that literally does not exist, to the detriment of his reputation and inevitable neglect of his wife. With a disturbing twist and uncompromisingly bleak ending, this was one of the anthology’s standout offerings.
A darkly charming piece of animation, Gloomy Valentine (wr/dir: Isabel Peppard) looks at the all-encompassing grief that arises from heartbreak, of allowing yourself to give in to the darkness that follows a failed relationship. The inclusion of a single piece of animation in an otherwise live-action anthology at first seems a little incongruous, however, it allows for a deeper and more abstract exploration of the issue of romantic loss which may have become overshadowed by the other forms of loss represented in DARK WHISPERS.
Watch Me (dir: Briony Kidd) asks an important question of the modern Western obsession with celebrity and fame: if no-one pays you attention, do you even exist? The desperate need to be constantly noticed and seen above all else, including personal relationships, can lead to a complete loss of self, and that is certainly the case here, although it was hard to feel sympathetic towards a character who appears to have absolutely no redeemable qualities. An important message and strong ending are both somewhat lost in amongst the weakest acting in the anthology.
Returning to the theme of generational storytelling, we have Storytime (wr/dir: Jub Clerk), this time from the perspective of the Indigenous Peoples of Australia. Many cultures tell tales designed to keep the young away from the dangers of the forest or bodies of water – think La Llorona or Hansel and Gretel. Tales of women who snatch children and imprison or even consume them. The details may change over time, but the message remains the same. This is perhaps the most accomplished of the segments, with impressive performances from its young cast, effective build-up, and rewarding payoff.
Maybe because the previous piece was so strong, The Ride (dir: Marion Pilowsky) is disappointing from its opening moments, right through to its predictable conclusion. Inexplicably British, even a surprise turn from Anthony La Paglia cannot save what ends up being an at best culturally insensitive, and at worst unnecessarily racist, take on circumstance and masculinity.
Luckily, DARK WHISPERS immediately redeems itself with White Song (wr/dir: Katrina Irawati Graham) – a story with a lot to unpack that deserves more time than the anthology format allows. A beautifully orchestrated journey through love and grief and motherhood, in stark contrast to the entwining tale of another’s abuse and revenge, this is a surprising and memorable experience that feels cheapened by the label of “ghost story”.
The term “social media vampire” is given the most literal interpretation in Grillz (dir: Lucy Gouldthorpe). In what seems like a pretty accurate take on how an actual vampire would operate today, we are also reminded of how vacuous and unsatisfying modern dating culture can be. Neither scary, nor particularly unsettling, Grillz is instead an enjoyable respite from the more hard-hitting pieces, but still with a pertinent element of social commentary.
Another strong segment, albeit in a more comedic horror vein, is Little Share House of Horrors (dir: Madeleine Purdy). It can be hard being the only girl living with a couple of stoner guys, and that’s even before you bring home an evil plant… Stylish and fun, the set up is enjoyable, the action sequence hilarious, and the ending brings forth a much-needed smile.
The Intruder (wr/dir: Janine Hewitt) is our final tale from The Book of DARK WHISPERS and sees Bree Desborough (of Home and Away fame) turn in an average performance as Angela in the most formulaic story in the anthology. A storm and an old house provide the setting for what is, at its core, a story about friendship. The conclusion won’t surprise you, but it’s not a bad note to end on and leads on very nicely tone-wise to the culmination of the film as a whole; the light at the end of the tunnel.
DARK WHISPERS is mostly an intriguing showcase of Australian female storytelling within the horror genre, a journey through a dark collection of modern-day fairy-tales with some important messages at its core. It doesn’t hold its punches and leaves plenty to think about long after the closing credits, much like the legacy of stories passed down from one generation to the next.