The Darkside Dir. Warwick Thornton

[Scarlett Pictures; 2013]

Styles: docudrama, ghost stories
Others: Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave

Sometime after the death of my father, my mother told me a comforting anecdote. She told me that several times immediately following his death, she would come home to an empty house, and the basement stereo (my dad’s beloved hi-fi surround system) would be inexplicably on, some song from my dad’s music collection pouring from the speakers. I am not sure if I believe this wholesale, but many families have a similar tale — a story, bordering on legend, which cements the idea that there is an afterlife, and in that afterlife our loved ones can, and do, reach out to those of us stranded in the land of the living.

The Darkside both begins and ends with this sort of tale, and in between features nearly every other type of ghost story, from the family curse to the shape-shifting demon. Most of the thirteen stories are “performed” by Australian actors (a curious sidestep), but whatever this effect loses in authenticity, it makes up for with increased gravitas. Director Warwick Thornton and producer Kath Shelper do an incredible job with the material they’re given, allowing several stories the long takes they need to breath, but also providing appropriate cutaways and B-roll when necessary. The third story, told by the original storyteller, concerns a young spirit girl seen on the side of the road. Although it’s a relatively uneventful account, the segment is enhanced by the accompanying footage of Ben Quilty as he paints a surreal portrait of a girl lying in a ditch. The second story, on the other hand, requires nothing additional. Performer Merwez Whaleboat’s body language and delivery is enough to make this account of an encounter with a demon properly chilling all by itself.

With broad strokes, these stories of ghosts and the unexplained gradually paint a picture of Australia, its diverse people, and even more distinct culture. Australia’s rich film history often flirts with the supernatural (Picnic at Hanging Rock) or a menacing portrayal of the dark, oppressive side of the outback wilderness (Walkabout, Wake in Fright, the wastelands of the Mad Max films). This darkness is itself a reflection of the country-continent’s troubled history, including the uprooting and subjugation of a native people — which provides easy fodder for the supernaturally-inclined. The ghosts and spirits of The Darkside are a welcome addition to the cinema of Australia, where domesticity implies campfires, aboriginal séances, roadside wraiths, and impenetrable wilderness.

Despite my own reservations, I don’t doubt my mom’s own belief in her story of the basement stereo. She told me shortly following the death of her own mother, distraught by the fact that she had not received any similar contact from her. While my father had attempted and succeeded in reaching my mom, my grandmother had made no such attempts. This deeply saddened and troubled her. But perhaps it is just that only certain people can communicate across whatever spiritual barrier exists. I’ve never made contact with any spirits, never felt the presence of another world, a darkside, or spirit realm, but I do think that some people wholeheartedly believe they can. One of my best friends wouldn’t step inside my house after my father died — I’m assuming because he still felt my dad’s presence there. For someone like me who wants to believe, these stories from those who do are encouraging, reassuring, and make the night seem less lonely and dark.

The Darkside screens October 26th at the Margaret Mead Film Festival (Oct 23-26) in NYC. See the full schedule here.

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