Aussie filmmaker Warwick Thornton is the hot new voice in the vampire genre right now, with his gritty outback series Firebite. But the award-winning director is no stranger to scary stories, as seen in his unique 2013 ghost film The Darkside.
In a double bill of supernatural viewing on Saturday 8 January, NITV has paired Darkside with another Indigenous yarn, the chilling 2020 short The Moogai.
And if these two films leave you wanting more homegrown horror, then look no further than 1993’s trailblazing anthology Bedevil, which can be found at SBS On Demand.
It’s interesting to watch one of his earlier fright-fests, The Darkside, a documentary-style collection of Indigenous-themed tales about people’s otherworldly experiences.
Thornton initially sought ghost stories from the public, which garnered 140 responses and these were whittled down to the final 13 that appear in the movie.
While three of the first-person accounts come directly from his original audio recordings, the rest are recreated by some of Australia’s finest actors including Deborah Mailman, Bryan Brown, Claudia Karvan and Sacha Horler.
They range from pure horror (a pregnant woman being attacked by a legless thing that crawls across the walls on its hands) to family tragedy (a woman is visited by the sobbing spirit of her brother after he kills himself).
Viewers’ hackles will rise as Steven (Aaron Pedersen) sits by a campfire at night and relates how a racist poltergeist tormented his family many years ago while staying in an old shed.
That uneasiness intensifies when, mid-story, Steven hears a noise behind him. Rattled, he stands and moves partly out of frame to investigate. After a moment, he sits down again but one realises how much the childhood experience has affected him.
The final story is probably the most powerful, a deeply moving story from Naomi (Shari Sebbens) regarding her dead nana acting as spirit guide to both Naomi and her ailing baby niece.
Thornton says many of the actors had concerns tackling such sensitive subjects during the production.
“When you start talking about spirits and that sort of stuff, somewhere in another dimension an eye opens and starts listening to what you’re talking about,” he explains to Cinema Australia. “Most people said, ‘OK, I’ll do the story, but what I want is for whoever’s country we’re on to get an elder to come in and do a smoking ceremony after we record, just in case we awaken something and it goes home with us.’”
Whether or not viewers believe in the supernatural, they can’t blame the cast and crew wanting to play it safe.
Noted writer/director Jon Bell packs a lot of psychological horror into The Moogai’s 15-minute running time, touching on such subjects as the Stolen Generation and post-natal depression.
Shari Sebbens, who gave a superlative performance in The Darkside, stars as young mum Sarah. She brings her new baby home from the hospital, only to realise that an evil creature called the Moogai is intent on snatching away the child.
At first, her husband Fergus (Meyne Wyatt) thinks his wife is just imagining everything. However, as the entity ramps up its activities in the house, the couple must make a decision on whether to confront the creature or flee for their lives.
Bell says Moogai is a term for spirit used by the Bundjalung people of northern coastal NSW. “We use it in ways of saying to a kid, like, the boogeyman will get you,” he tells The Curb.
The Moogai’s subject matter had a profound effect on Bell and others on the set, especially the evocative final scene. “You know you’re making a horror film, but we just had tears…we were so full on.”
Writer/director Tracey Moffatt broke new ground with the eerie Bedevil, the first Australian movie to be helmed by an Indigenous woman. It’s a confident debut, with its heavy use of hyper-stylised artificial stage sets and dance sequences (courtesy of Bangarra Dance Theatre).
At times, Bedevil looks and sounds like a Hollywood movie from the 1950s or early 60s, particularly an opening shot that would make Hitchcock proud.
The trilogy of stories kicks off with ‘Mr Chuck’, about a troubled Indigenous boy living on Bribie Island and his fascination with a cinema built on top of a swamp stalked by the ghost of a drowned American GI.
‘Choo Choo Choo Choo’, set in the outback Queensland town of Charleville, focuses on an Indigenous family living next to a railway line and a ghostly invisible train that torments the mother Ruby (played by Moffatt herself).
‘Lovin’ The Spin I’m In’ intertwines the lives of a greedy land developer (Lex Marinos), two young lovers whose passionate relationship ends in terrible violence, a mourning mother and a mysterious artist dressed as Frida Kahlo.
Not everything in Bedevil makes obvious sense, but that’s not particularly surprising when it comes to ghosts.
Bedevil is available at SBS On Demand:
For more Warwick Thornton brilliance, Sweet Country will also screen on NITV at 10pm on Monday 24 January. The 3-hour slow TV documentary The Beach will screen on NITV at 9pm on Tuesday 25 January. Samson and Delilah will screen at 9.20pm on Wednesday January 26 on SBS World Movies. Samson & Delilah and Sweet Country are also both at SBS On Demand. The Beach is available to SBS On Demand as a six-episode series.