Horror anthologies are notoriously difficult to get right. Even with a variety of talented people involved, there’s a massive difference between the likes of V/H/S 2 (the best of the franchise) and The ABCs of Death. Length is always an issue, as is the number of shorts included — five tends to be too few, while including more than 10 leaves the whole enterprise feeling overstuffed. Dark Whispers: Volume 1, an all-female Australian horror anthology and the first of its kind, clocks in at a reasonable enough 99 minutes, which are spread over 10 shorts and one wraparound story involving the reading of the titular book. Sure, it’s a clunky wraparound, but it’s no worse than a criminal gang breaking into a house full of videotapes and watching them one by one (V/H/S).
Andrea Demetriades stars as Clara, a young woman cleaning out her mother’s old house, who stumbles upon “Dark Whispers Vol 1.” The dusty tome contains a note warning her to “tread carefully” in reading and taking care of it, just as her mother did before her. Soon, Clara needs a glass of wine just to get through the thing, so spooky and disturbing are the stories contained within. Likewise, as Clara reads, the house beings creaking and making strange noises (the sound design is loud, so every tiny noise reverberates). She even starts hearing her mother’s voice echoed between the walls. Naturally, burning the blasted thing doesn’t work and Clara must finish it if she wants to escape.
The wraparound is a strong enough story in its own right and the 10 featured shorts are all of a similarly high quality in Dark Whispers: Volume 1. First up, Angie Black’s “Birthday Girl” plays off that keenly felt fear of riding in a lift alone at night mixed with the incomparable pain of losing a child. It’s short but sweet and makes its point without hammering it home. Kaitlyn Tinker’s “The Man Who Caught a Mermaid” follows and is easily the darkest and most unpredictable of the lot (thankfully, it’s not one of the H2O: Just Add Water girls he nabs). Isabel Peppard’s “Gloomy Valentine” is a gorgeously gothic stop motion nightmare with Tim Burton-style visuals and an achingly sad score. Briony Kidd’s “Watch Me” features a woman who survives on the attention of others… literally. Jub Clerc’s “Storytime” is just that, an aboriginal tale shared between children of a bogeyman, or woman, which is barely glimpsed, boasting stunningly sun-parched cinematography.
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In Dark Whispers: Volume 1, Marion Pilowsky’s “The Ride” plays off the old Aussie fear of picking up hitchhikers in a delightfully twisted way (neither of these guys must have seen Wolf Creek), while Katrina Irawati Graham’s “White Song” gives a vengeful female spirit full scope to tell her own, horribly tragic story, and Lucy Gouldthorpe’s “Grillz” sees a Tinder vampire acquiring bad-ass new fangs in a monochromatic palette recalling Ana Lily Amirpour’s esteemed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Madeleine Purdy’s “Little Share House of Horrors” features killer plants and a gurning, scene-stealing shopkeeper, and is so funny and oddball that it’s a shame the short doesn’t end the whole thing. Instead, Janine Hewitt’s “The Intruder” finishes things up on a bit of a bum note, with the repetitive tale of an abused woman on the edge that misses all opportunities to be atmospheric in a shadow-filled house besieged by lightning.
The problem with Dark Whispers: Volume 1 is the same as with any horror anthology — the stories are only as good as what’s come before. In this way, the movie starts better than it ends, with even the wraparound tied up too neatly. There are no out-and-out stinkers to suffer through, thankfully, which puts Dark Whispers: Volume 1 ahead of several others of its ilk, including the bizarrely popular ABCs of Death, which boasts significantly more bad than good shorts (there are also way too many included, given each member of the alphabet is represented). Regardless of the overall quality, Dark Whispers: Volume 1 doesn’t overstay its welcome and none of the shorts feel overlong except for maybe “The Intruder,” which features the same sequence over and over before a real dud of a payoff.
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Of the featured shorts in Dark Whispers: Volume 1, “The Man Who Caught a Mermaid” is an obvious standout, with a committed central performance, some terrific make-up effects and a serious sting in its tail — suffice to say, The Shape of Water this ain’t. Likewise, “Little Share House of Horrors” features some seriously funny plant-killing fight scenes, which take place in a share house that actually feels like a real place students live in, bongs and dirty dishes included, rather than a set. “Gloomy Valentine” also stands out primarily because it’s the only animated short, while the protagonist’s pink-rimmed eyes and purple lips are hugely evocative. It’s difficult to imagine all 10 shorts extended to feature length but either of these three could happily sustain a movie.
The problem, of course, is that female filmmakers rarely get the opportunities afforded to their male counterparts, which is why showcases like Dark Whispers: Volume 1 are so important. If nothing else, they introduce us to talented women whose work would remain otherwise unknown, or little seen. XX made a similar case for ladies such as Roxanne Benjamin and Karyn Kusama, beloved genre filmmakers who continue to go from strength to strength. With any luck, and regardless of whether there’s a Vol 2 (though one would certainly be welcome), Dark Whispers: Volume 1 will do the same for the 11 women featured here, all of whom are more than worthy of further attention based on this evidence alone.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.