For filmmaker Megan Riakos, there are collective fears and there are collections of fears. And that’s exactly what she deals with in her horror anthology, Dark Whispers Volume 1, a compendium of short films directed by Australian women that is streaming at SBS On Demand from March 8, International Women’s Day.
Dark Whispers Volume 1 contains 10 shorts within a narrative that frames and contextualises as well as providing a story of its own. There’s a rich variety of angles, anxieties and obsessions and a range of reasons to be fearful in the shorts she has assembled. The filmmakers explore, among other things, strong themes of loss and longing and family, Riakos says, and reflect the variety of “the female experience” that can range from “being a mother to being stalked”.
Riakos had the idea for the anthology after completing her debut feature, Crushed (2015). With projects in various stages of development, she felt she needed to get something underway immediately. She had become involved in advocacy around gender equality, she says, and she wanted this new project to reflect that. She also wanted to be able “to do something really interesting, fun and achievable budget-wise”.
She had made a short, The Shed, a few years earlier, and it had been selected for the Stranger With My Face International Film Festival in Tasmania, an event that focuses on horror, genre and gender. What she saw and experienced there, she says, provided inspiration for the notion of an anthology that brought together for the first time a collection of horror shorts made by Australian women.
She issued a call-out, and received more than 50 submissions. Curating the collection, she worked with Briony Kidd, founder of A Stranger With My Face, who has a short film in Dark Whispers Volume 1.
Riakos also asked producer Enzo Tedeschi, who had created a horror anthology several years earlier, to come on board as a consultant. He then became executive producer.
The framing story for Dark Whispers, written and directed by Riakos, shows a young woman arriving at the family home and discovering that she has inherited a mysterious book from her late mother. As she compulsively turns the pages, the stories not only unfold before her, they start to take on a curious life of their own around her.
The idea for the title and this wraparound story, Riakos says, comes partly from the idea of a female inheritance, and partly from the notion of a women’s “whisper network”: accounts passed from one to another, admonitions, warnings and cautionary tales, “stories of women learning the ways of the world in order for us to be able to operate and function and thrive and be happy. And not get killed.”
Bringing these films together into a feature-length film, she says, has several advantages. It’s a way of allowing shorts to be seen beyond the festival circuit. “There are curation platforms on YouTube, but it’s still limited. Being scaffolded in a bigger feature project has more to offer.” Dark Whispers Volume 1 had its premiere in 2019, and continues to find audiences.
Riakos sees the anthology as a pleasure in itself, an entertaining and unsettling collection of shorts, but also as “a talent escalator. I’m trying to shine a light on these works, particularly some that are a little bit older, revisiting them and saying, ‘Hey take a look at this’.”
Some women working in the field of horror have found that shorts can lead even more directly to features: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Natalie Erika James’s Relic both started out as short films (Riakos, as it happens, worked in the art department on Monster, the short version of The Babadook).
If there is a volume one, does that mean that there will be a volume two? Perhaps, Riakos says. “I like to be optimistic about things.” She has considered the possibility of turning to a different genre, perhaps science fiction, if she embarks on another anthology.
Watch 'Dark Whispers - Volume 1'
Monday 25 October, 7:35pm on SBS World Movies / Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Australia, UK, 2019
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Directors: Marion Pilowsky, Jub Clerc, Isabel Peppard, Megan Riakos, Kaitlin Tinker, Madeleine Purdy, Briony Kidd, Lucy Gouldthorpe, Katrina Irawati Graham, Janine Hewitt
Starring: Andrea Demetriades, Anthony LaPaglia, Asher Keddie, Bree Desborough, Ed Speleers