A book can crack open a whole new world for the reader. In the case of Australia’s all-female-directed horror film anthology, Dark Whispers, a mysterious ancestral book left upon a mother’s passing to her daughter becomes the very literal entrance point into an unsettling universe.
For us, what lies inside is an eclectic bundle of 10 short films, ranging from a gothic animation, to a twisted mermaid fantasy, to an Indonesian ghost story. It was conceived by writer-director Megan Riakos, who issued a call-out to Australian women filmmakers for new or existing works, and those selected were granted their own unique chapter in the anthology.
There’s real pop to the directorial visions on display in this assortment of psychological thrillers, some of which dip their toes into horror. The visually striking homage to old-school horror in Janine Hewitt’s 2005 short The Intruder, starring Asher Keddie (pre-Offspring fame) as Zoe, is gorgeously shot on 35mm film. With a raging storm outside, there’s plenty of dramatic, flashing lightning and shadowy interiors to keep the suspense alive in the short running time. When Zoe’s estranged friend Angela (Bree Desborough) unexpectedly arrives at her doorstep, it trades loud jump scares for the stewing fear of a lingering presence outside.
Another highlight is Kaitlin Tinker’s The Man Who Caught a Mermaid (2016), which plays tonally as a light, jovial comedy before unleashing its disillusioned and delusional male protagonist, Herb (Roy Barker). Isabel Peppard’s 2006 stop-motion Gloomy Valentine finds tragic melancholy in its Corpse Bride-like leading lady; her sunken facial features and shattered heart gorge a visceral, bloody grief.
Anthologies have had a formidable part to play in the horror film genre, with 1945’s Dead of Night helping to popularise the format. In the Australian context, there are Tracey Moffat’s Bedevil and Warwick Thornton’s The Darkside, as well as the recent all-Indigenous-helmed Dark Places. All unveil the breadth and depth of the local talent pool: there’s no lack of exciting, diverse national filmmakers working in these spaces.
Time, though, in the anthology’s packed-in presentation, is crucial in making an impression. So it’s in the details that some stories shine over others, especially in how quickly they’re able to conjure up mood and deliver sometimes complex ideas.
Briony Kidd’s Watch Me (2016) is a challenging story of an unhinged famous actor’s desperate spiral in front of her boyfriend and personal assistant; and Dorset-set The Ride (2011), starring Anthony LaPaglia, leans too heavily and swiftly into the overt racism of its dangerous white male saviour.
Despite this, there are some effective performances in the tearful eyes of Rachael (Sarah Bollenberg) in the claustrophobic, elevator-situated Birthday Girl (2008), as well as in Indigenous supernatural thriller Storytime (2005), where a child goes missing within the tangled roots of the mangroves in the Kimberley region.
The narrative binding these stories together centres on Clara (Andrea Demetriades) who, upon coming across the Book of Dark Whispers, becomes compelled to read on: first out of curiosity, then by a more elusive fear. Every time a story ends, there’s either a visual or sound cue that spills over into real life, such as when blood drips from Clara’s teeth on to the page, after she “reads” Grillz, Lucy Gouldthorpe’s 2015 black-and-white vampiric Tinder romance. It’s unfortunate that the framing device is less than inspired, if tacked-on, with little connection between it and the short stories themselves.
As a whole, Dark Whispers is scattershot in its consistency from one tale to the next, partly due to its nature as a compilation of films from a spectrum of filmmakers’ varying tastes. For instance, it’s a jarring switch in era and aesthetic between the lo-fi dreamy magic realism of Katrina Irawati Graham’s White Song to the crisper, modern-day young adult comedy of Little Share House of Horrors.
When appreciated separately, though, there’s distinctive artistry and promise in each chapter. The subtitle to Dark Whispers is “Volume I”, suggesting both an intended sequel and the fact that, if one chooses to look for it, there’s an abundance of untapped talent in the pages and beyond.
• Dark Whispers is available to stream in Australia and the UK through multiple video-on-demand services