Back in 2007, a Guardian article by Emine Saner entitled 'Everything but the Ghoul' argued that "there just aren't enough female directors in any genre, but especially in horror."
In 2019, 'Dark Whispers Vol. 1', an anthology of short films from 11 Australian female horror directors, offers a robust rebuttal to that notion. Curated by Megan Riakos and producer Leonie Marsh, with associate producer Briony Kidd and executive producer Enzo Tedeschi on board, the shorts date back to 2005 and cohere according to the inherent themes and similarities that the films share. Not just killers, ghouls and ghosts... but longing, grief, regret, family, kinship and motherhood.
Women have been creating horror movies since the early days of cinema, including films such as 'Faust et Méphistophélès' (1903), directed by filmmaking pioneer Alice Guy, and the thriller 'Suspense' (1913), directed by Lois Weber. 1978's 'Halloween', inarguably the most influential modern slasher flick, was co-written and produced by Debra Hill; feminist author Rita Mae Brown penned 1982's gorefest 'The Slumber-Party Massacre', which was directed by Amy Haden Jones; and future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow cut her teeth on the 1987 vampire-film classic 'Near Dark'.
Women continue to be instrumental in the horror industry not only as directors, but also as actors, writers, and producers. Female characters are prominent in scary movies, and not always as helpless victims. Think about the Final Girl, without whom slasher films would not exist, or other kick-arse heroines, like Ripley from 'Alien'.
Behind the camera, though, the numbers don't add up. You'll still find way more male writers and directors. Even the canon's essentially feminine narratives, like 'Rosemary's Baby', 'The Descent', 'Let the Right One In' and 'Misery' come from the minds of men. "There are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror," Jason Blum, the head of Blumhouse Productions, said in a 2018 interview with Polygon before immediately offering a swift apology on social media.
Female directors are so glaringly absent from the mainstream because the industry is stacked against them in every conceivable way. As Amy Adrion highlighted in her documentary 'Half the Picture', female directors have to contend with scant funding and a one-strike industry that only allows them to produce a single dud before they're lowballed for life. Attitudes like Blum's are why new horror movies directed by women are worthy of extra celebration.
Against the odds, the past few years have brought us a new generation of horror classics about women, by women. Films like 'Raw', 'Prevenge', 'The Lure', 'The Love Witch', 'The Babadook', 'The Wind', 'Satanic Panic', 'Braid' and 'XX', a female-helmed horror anthology described by one of its makers, Jovanka Vuckovic, as a "historic moment... created in direct response to the lack of opportunities for women in film, particularly in the horror genre," which, she argues, was "badly in need of new perspectives."
As 'Dark Whispers Vol. 1' opens, we are introduced to Clara (Andrea Demetriades, 'Alex & Eve'), a young woman whose mother has recently passed away. She inherits a creepy-looking tome, The Book of Dark Whispers, filled with morality tales and warnings for women. Directed by Megan Riakos, Clara's story acts as the film's wraparound segment. As she reads the stories, which become steadily more horrifying, she notices various motifs materialising into the real world. When she tries to put the book down or destroy it, she is urged by a mysterious force to continue turning its pages...
"I don't think a lot of the filmmakers making horror now know its worth, or realise the potential of the genre," 'Babadook' director Jennifer Kent told New York magazine back in 2014. "Just because it's a horror film doesn't mean it can't be deep." Horror has always had an easy relationship with allegory and, at their best, horror films invite self-examination and interpretation, which is a huge part of the appeal for any director. Sometimes they are just plain brutal to look at, but don't go deeper than the first cut. There isn't much in the way of blood, guts and gore in 'Dark Whispers Vol. 1' - these stories are largely of the subtle and psychological variety, searching for a deeper meaning or a timely message and allowing the female directors to explore every type of terror, from body horror to extreme paranoia.
Set in an elevator in a hospital during the night, Angie Black's 'Birthday Girl' tells a bittersweet ghost story that reconnects a mother with her young daughter. Isabel Peppard's surreal 'Gloomy Valentine' is an emotionally disturbing exploration of heartbreak through some nightmarish Bolexbrothers-style stop-motion animation. Madeleine Purdy's fun 'Little Sharehouse of Horrors' brings to mind Edgar Wright's 'Spaced' if it was invaded by the carnivorous plants from Sam Raimi's 'Evil Dead'. Lucy Gouldthorpe's 'Grillz', an odd but amusing story about vampires, kinks and matchmaking apps, recalls Michael Almereyda's 'Nadja', another black and white film that handles the legendary bloodsuckers in an understated arthouse style.
These stories are largely of the subtle and psychological variety, searching for a deeper meaning or a timely message and allowing the female directors to explore every type of terror, from body horror to extreme paranoia.
'The Ride', directed by Marion Pilowsky, follows a student (Ed Speleers, 'The House That Jack Built', 'Zoo') on his way to meet his girlfriend, who accepts a lift across the English countryside from a random driver (a thuggish Anthony LaPaglia, 'Annabelle: Creation') whose misogynistic and racist chit-chat eventually strides into 'Wolf Creek' territory.
In Briony Kidd's 'Watch Me', a famous actress (Astrid Wells Cooper) is addicted to receiving attention. Out for dinner with her boyfriend (Tosh Greenslade), she waves at the fans ogling her before ducking off to the loo for a quick fix, whipping out a camera phone on the toilet to indulge her craving for an audience. She even blackmails her personal assistant (Jazz Yap) into watching her while she sleeps, like Van Helsing sitting beside a snoozing victim to ward off Dracula. Similar in tone to a Peter Strickland film, it mixes wit and the absurd with sadomasochism, ambiguity and unusual psychology.
Home invasion movies are driven by a universal fear: who hasn't worried about someone breaking into their home with malicious intent? It's why creaks and bumps scare you when you're home alone. It's why wind chimes become instruments of terror when the sun goes down. Janine Hewitt's 'The Intruder' stars a pre-fame Asher Keddie (TV's 'Offspring') as Zoe, a young woman hiding from an ominous figure in her front yard on a dark and stormy night, only to instead encounter her worse-for-wear former best friend, Angela (Bree Desborough).
Kaitlin Tinker's terrific 'The Man who Caught a Mermaid' starts off like a whimsical riff on Agnieszka Smoczyńska's 'The Lure' before moving into the more sinister territory of Lucky McKee's 'The Woman'. Not only does it boast some impressive monster effects, but there is also a sharp twist that makes an old fisherman's quest to capture a nubile young mermaid even more creepy. A mix of blunt sexual politics and luridness, Tinker's segment is an all-out assault on the fraternity of men and the outrageous lengths they go to in order to fulfill their desires and keep women in line.
Like all horror movie anthologies, it comes down to a personal taste. For me, the standout entries include 'White Song' from Katrina Irawati, an Indonesian ghost story told from the perspective of the Kuntil Anak, the spectre of a woman who was brutalised by her husband and died while pregnant. Raesita, a batik artist, loses her own husband in a car accident and the ghost is drawn to her inconsolable grief. Beautiful to look at, strangely haunting and a distant relative of Kiki Sugino's 'Snow Woman', Irawati's lyrical segment ebbs back and forth between the two tragic women via some dreamy editing. Another highlight is Jub Clerc's 'Storytime' which follows a couple of adventurous Indigenous kids, Jhi (Jhi Clarke) and Cecilia (Verna Lawson), in the Kimberley region as they wander deep into the mangrove swamp at sunset and encounter the terrifying Gooynbooyn Woman. This segment has atmosphere to spare via the shadow-dappled, maze-like scenery and the solemn acting of Sylvia Clarke as Gran. It's a reminder that, while there are about four trillion things in Australia than can kill you in a second, our myths and legends are just as dark.
After flicking through every page and chapter of 'Dark Whispers Vol. 1' and watching the eerie stories brought to life by 11 talented Australian female filmmakers, you'll quickly decide on your own favourites and be left wanting more. Here's hoping that 'Dark Whispers Vol. 2' appears sooner rather than later to continue to showcase the talent this country has in abundance.