Anthologies are a tricky business. The ability to tell a sharp and memorable story in a bite size amount of time is a craft all its own, and one of the most difficult to master no matter what your medium...
...Anthology films especially seem a little more high-risk-high-reward scenario because, while it isn’t necessary for every story to be great for the anthology to be memorable (think Trilogy of Terror and how, collectively, we seem only to remember the last segment), truly lasting anthologies are built from pieces that manage both to shine on their own and amplify the stories around them. My favorite thing about anthology films, though, is when they’re diverse enough to have something in them, somewhere, for everyone. Dark Whispers Volume 1, a film with stories from 11 women filmmakers across Australia and which recently played at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, is a shining example of horror anthology film done right.
Woven intricately together with the thematic thread of grief, love, and moving on, Dark Whispers asks us to peek behind the curtains of loss and face what we see there, even when it shocks us, and even when it pains us. Every segment carves a space for itself in your mind. Even the frame story, about a young woman who discovers a book containing dark tales passed down to her after her mother’s death, reminds us that stories live in us and connect us even as they frighten us.
The first tale, “Birthday Girl”, directed by Angie Black and written by Michael Harden, feels like one of the shortest but also sharpest offerings. A bit of slow burn that seeps into your skin after it unfolds, it tells of a mother grieving for the loss of her child at a young age by way of a constant, solitary elevator journey and an insistence that she remember every year they had together, for better or worse. But her memory and her daughter’s memory seem to conflict in pointed ways. It’s a slick first step into a world of mystery where we can’t quite believe our first impressions.
“The Man Who Caught a Mermaid”, directed by Kaitlin Tinker and written by Tinker and Jean-Phillipe Lopez, is one of the most shocking offerings. Less about loss and more about obsession, it tells the tale of a fisherman on a desperate search for a mermaid of his own. Featuring perhaps the most shocking twist in the anthology and some of the best creature design hearkening back to what mermaids are really like, this is a standout among heavy hitters.
“Gloomy Valentine”, directed by Isabel Peppard and written by Peppard and Warwick Burton, is one of the most visually stunning. The only animated segment, it tells a poignant tale of love, loss, and what we risk losing when we begin to forget, all without a single line of dialogue. I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation, and everything about the design for this story was a perfect blend of heartfelt and unsettling.
“Watch Me”, directed by Briony Kidd and written by Claire d’ Este, is perhaps the most relevant tale to modern social culture. It tells of a woman who must be watched by at least one person no matter what she’s doing. Constantly open to prying stares and criticism, she loses her closest relationships while trying to maintain her existence. “If they stop staring, I fail,” she tells her boyfriend when confronted at a restaurant. To be unwatched, ignored, forgotten is equivalent to death. A layer of ambiguity sits over it all—is she being controlled or is this just the way of the world?
“White Song”, written and directed by Katrina Irawati Graham, tells a heart-wrenching tale of a woman who loses her partner in an accident and plunges herself headlong into a desire for nothingness from the perspective of the spirit she calls out to, the Kuntil Anak, the traditional Indonesian ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth. The most striking element of this story is the cinematography and sharp contrast between light and darkness, vibrant color and the washed-out tones of drowning. When the grieving woman makes an unexpected choice, the Kuntil Anak makes an observation that serves well as a blanket statement for the whole film: “the humans love their pain”.
And she’s right, it seems. All of Dark Whispers unites in the idea that, no matter how painful or dark things may get, no matter what kind of pains we suffer or losses we face, the best thing we can do is hold on to the light, not just of memory, but of hope. The unsung hero of these disparate stories, the thing that weaves them all into one with precision and effortlessness, is the incredibly beautiful and occasionally stark cinematography that plants light in even the darkest corners in every segment. Sometimes the light is large and looming, sometimes it’s little more than a flicker, but it is always there somewhere, a symbol of hope in a world that would take it from us.
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By Katelyn Nelson