DARK PLACE

★★★

AN UNSETTLING INDIGENOUS HORROR ANTHOLOGY

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
5th October 2019

Maybe it’s the weather, the insects, the feverish consumption of Vegemite or the isolation from the rest of the world, but there’s something about Australia that sporadically spawns gems of the horror genre, like ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, ‘Lake Mungo’, ‘The Babadook’, ‘Rogue’, ‘Wolf Creek’, ‘Razorback’, ‘Snowtown’ and ‘The Loved Ones’.

Though beautiful in many ways, Australia’s scenery is often harsh and dangerous, which ends up bleeding over onto film. Whether it’s the dark, impenetrable bushland, endless outback or a depressed suburban area, it’s easy for Australia to look creepy.

Anthology horror movies endeavor to tell a series of engaging, self-contained stories that must also contribute to a common theme. It is economics in storytelling to the extreme. What’s unique about the anthology ‘Dark Place’ is that the five horror shorts commissioned by the ABC and Screen Australia are the creations of emerging Indigenous filmmakers. The film tells uniquely Indigenous stories with historical parallels, using largely Indigenous casts.

Horror film anthologies are notoriously uneven (see ‘The Field Guide to Evil’ for further reference), but the best examples will hit you hard with one tale after another. Each one will build on not only a consistent narrative thread, but on your ability to sustain one dread-inducing horror story after another. It’s not an easy feat.

'DARK PLACE' TRAILER

'Dark Place' follows in the footsteps of truly great horror anthologies, like the E.C. comics-inspired 'Creepshow' and Asian trilogy-of-terror 'Three... Extremes' by offering a wide variety of fright-flick approaches.

Kodie Bedford's ‘Scout’ follows three Indigenous women, including Scout (Katherine Bennett), who are kidnapped and imprisoned in shipping containers by the sadistic Mike (Hugh Sheridan) before being led out in chains as entertainment for wealthy white men (led by Nicholas Hope, ‘Bad Boy Bubby’). The women have their sense of identity broken down by the brutal abuse, but revenge is close at hand. It's similar to a Roger Corman "women in prison" kind of movie, only without any kind of exploitative appeal (sex, lesbianism, nudity, etc). It also doesn't have much subtlety. In truth, it's a bit of a slog.

Sleep is becoming one of the crisis points of late modernity, as the steady encroachment of the 24/7 plugged-in world only intensifies sleep’s already uncanny nature. To sleep is to slip into a realm of darkness, irrationality, and the supernatural. Liam Phillip's slow-burning ‘Foe’ sees an insomniac (Leonie Whyman) taking her therapist’s advice and videotaping herself to cure her sleepwalking and, she suspects, some unconscious self-destructive tendencies (shades of 'Paranormal Activity'). Or does she? Phillip turns to sleep to exploit its inherently uncanny nature and the way it suggests that we are not always in control of who we are and what we do. Shocking reveals of the David Lynch's 'Lost Highway' kind ensue. It's a slight but eerie entry.

The intensity begins to ramp up with ‘Vale Light’ by Rob Braslin, a supernatural thriller in the vein of Jeff Nichol’s ‘Midnight Special’ and Joe Begos’ ‘The Mind’s Eye’. Young mother Shae (Tasia Zalar) takes her daughter Isabelle (Jolie Everett) to live in a new housing commission estate - they are on the run and we briefly hear mention of a fire on the radio. Before you can say ‘Get Out’, their single white boomer neighbour Diane (Sara Pensalfini) has taken an unhealthy shine to the young girl.

The human body becomes soft, moldy, and malleable, and Stewart treats it like kids treat a mound of Play-Doh.

My favourite segment was Perun Bonser's near-expressionist ‘The Shore’. A young woman named Selena (Luka May Glynn-Cole) is drawn to a figure in the water of a nearby lake. Shot in black and white, Bonser’s film places ambiance and dream logic to the fore, not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Hour of the Wolf’, another film with vampire-like antagonists, a surreal style and with elements of folklore. It's a short and beautifully crafted mood piece.

'Dark Place' ends with an explosion of viscera with Bjorn Stewart’s deliriously graphic horror-comedy ‘Killer Native’. We are introduced to a Brit (Charlie Garber) and his pregnant wife (Lily Sullivan), a gormless couple of colonial settlers whose romantic reverie is interrupted by a droll bushman (Clarence Ryan). Brit promptly knocks him out, but when the man wakes up he warns the couple that a deadly creature is roaming the scrub. This segment kicks off with a gratuitous display of human carnage and ends with a breathtakingly gory riff on the “stolen generation”. The obvious point of comparison is Jennifer Kent's ‘The Nightingale’... but in the style of an early 90s Peter Jackson splatstick movie. The human body becomes soft, moldy, and malleable, and Stewart treats it like kids treat a mound of Play-Doh.

The appeal of anthologies lies in our desire to hear several horror stories in a row. Horror sometimes speaks to our need to push ourselves. It could be argued that anthologies appeal to our desire to see just how much we can take.

Running at a lean 75 minutes and offering a bounty of gore, atmosphere and thought-provoking stories, 'Dark Place' is the rare horror anthology that moves from strength to strength and never overstays its welcome.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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