Review: In The Winter Dark

in-winter-dark-DVDcover001In the Winter Dark (Aust-1998; dir. James Bogle)

A number of significant Australian films that may be classified as “horror” play more like dramas with a subjective undercurrent of otherworldly influence than full-on supernatural thrillers, perhaps reflecting the ambivalent attitude felt by many Australians of European descent to a land that remains persistently alien. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Aust-1975; dir. Peter Weir) is a good example; another is The Well (Aust-1997; dir. Samantha Lang). In the Winter Dark also leaves the viewer with a distinct feeling that its supernatural suggestiveness may very well originate in the mind of the main character, even if there is evidence of its objective reality as well.

Based on the novel by Tim Winton, In the Winter Dark places four people in an isolated country setting — so often a key theme of Australian films. Maurice Stubbs (Ray Barrett) and his wife Ida (Brenda Blethyn) are an aging couple who have never come to terms with the death of their second child and whose relationship has settled into an emotional separation that mirrors their physical detachment from other people. Murray Jacob (Richard Roxburgh) lives across the valley in a house once owned by an old cat woman, nursing his own unspoken sadnesses. In a neighbouring house, Ronnie (Miranda Otto), a young, and pregnant, city woman, struggles with a life spiraling into chaos. They are forced together by an unseen creature lurking in the surrounding bush, emerging at night to attack and bloodily slaughter farm animals. In trying to deal with it, they find that the creature — possibly a vastly oversized feral cat (or even what is known in cryptozoological circles as an “ABC” or Alien Big Cat)  — becomes an ambiguously supernatural presence, drawing out the emotions that dwell within each of them and that cannot, in the end, be contained.

Stated baldly, this narrative description could fit any number of standard horror films, yet it is not standard horror tropes that drive In the Winter Dark. They are present by suggestion, but never clearly there. Instead In the Winter Dark remains a subjective experience, dependent on superb performances from the actors (especially Ray Barrett’s as the focus of the growing sense that what has been so long unspoken is now rising to the surface), on the mood created, on hints and suggestive statements, and on carefully placed flashbacks.

Though the supernatural element is never presented objectively and we never see the creature, it is nevertheless the key element both narratively and within the film’s emotional framework. Director Bogle, whose previous work includes the supernatural thriller Kadaicha (1988), gives the unseen creature a palpable sense of emergent presence, with foreboding voice-overs from Stubbs, suggestive shadows in the dark and ominous movements in the windblown bush, the reactions of the characters to something we can’t see, the discovery of bloodily slaughtered animals, and strange coincidences in evidence for the thing’s nature (as when Ida discovers that her own fist fits perfectly into a cast made from its paw-print). Toward the climax, isolated images and memories come together and it is this synchronicity, finally, that both evokes a sense of the supernatural and creates the film’s metaphorical ambiance. For example, we learn that the cot-death of the Stubbs’ baby was blamed on their elder daughter’s cat and that Stubbs assuaged his sorrow by killing it, even though he wasn’t sure the cat was really to blame. Is the apparent alienation of their daughter a consequence of this? Is Stubbs right when he claims the creature that is stalking them now is an overgrown feral cat? And if so, is it some sort of manifestation of his guilt? And what of reports that local witches are sacrificing cats? How does that fit in? We are never given answers, but the questions create their own sense of import.

In the opening narration, Stubbs says: “I started to have these dreams. Not mine. Other people’s. Dead people, broken people…” The dreams (manifest as flashbacks) represent an enforced breakdown of isolation that comes only after tragedy renders it unattainable. The final image of Stubbs, alone on his front porch, awaiting either redemption or punishment, is a profoundly moving one — a metaphor of the hell he has created for himself.

Bleak and emotionally powerful, In the Winter Dark offers horror of the soul rather than the more visceral horror of serial killers and monsters. As such its effect lingers long after those other, more physical horrors have faded from memory.

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