At the forefront of streaming original horror in all mediums, Shudder has delivered feature films, ongoing series, podcasts, and even shorts. Fresh off Creepshow season 2, we’re treated to the Australian anthology miniseries Deadhouse Dark of six loosely connected stories. I stress loosely. They suggest the umbrella narrative of a mystery box in one story, but the blink-and-miss-them ties are tenuous at best. Deadhouse Dark may seem a mystery box but ends up a grab bag of mostly decent standalone tales, which at 12-15 minutes each are worth a look if you’re a horror fiend burning through Shudder’s catalogue.
DASHCAM_013_20191031.MP4 (AKA Halloween)
DASHCAM, or as Shudder titles it, Halloween, is our story-light aperitif establishing an immediate atmosphere of unease for the anthology. Sisters Marti (Naomi Sequeira) and Toni (Sarah-Louise Collidge) leave a party in the woods and encounter a wrecked car in the pitch black of night, then they find the bloodied driver. This is a short and sweet story that allows a naturalistic sense of dread through the found-footage direction and delivers an intriguing, horrifying twist. The two leads are believable with their limited characters, though their argument blows up too artificially due to time constraints, and unlike the upcoming Staircase I appreciate their minimal personalities as we have time to settle ourselves in their position.
Ironically for promising a technology themed horror, I had some peculiar issues. Their voice-overs while inside the car sound completely separate from their environment, and there’s a particularly odd moment where a phone is held out in front of the dashcam… something mounted on the dashboard up against the windscreen making that almost impossible. Very minor quibbles but regarding the whole series every short does look fantastic for what appears to be tiny budgets.
No Pain No Gain
This and The Staircase are easily my least favourites for entirely different reasons. Tonally, most entries feel like pitches for Creepshow, but No Pain No Gain is aiming more for Black Mirror with a human story tackling real social issues. Each story twists technology against us for eliciting horror but this just comes across like a maudlin high school PSA. Track runner Tilda (Gemma Bird Matheson) has fallen into a depressive state after losing a race when an acclaimed coach offers her guidance online. As she hesitates with his pre-recorded training routine, bullying texts, and phone calls peer-pressure her into dangerous behaviours that teach mind over matter.
A highly original premise rich for horror potential, which offers some wincing moments, but the execution is too haphazard in solemnness and silliness. Tilda performs her first exercise task of fifty laps, straightforward enough, then the next step is carving a letter into her skin… and she immediately does it! There’s precedent for this but cult mentality takes time to establish which we don’t have in a 15-minute short, so the dramatic escalation is completely off. Mystery pills and depreciating messages take advantage of her desperation, but we needed those before something as radical as self-harming, and ultimately what is this for? A quick internet search of the coach’s prestige and Tilda accepts her self-flagellation in return of rudimentary exercise routines that anyone can teach, and the fitness guru sessions sound like the same nonsense that a hundred influencers dole out for free.
As cloyingly as No Pain No Gain is attempting to be a ‘very special episode’, The Staircase aims for direct terror and fails even harder. Outwardly annoying vlogger Brody (Ryan Morgan) brings his film crew, Tan (Jenny Wu) and Clay (Adam Sollis), to check out the spooky location that supposedly drove someone mad. After attempting not to spoil these as summaries are effectively the entire story, when I say they go down an industrial stairway and crazy shit happens, that is literally everything that happens.
A disappointment because some elements do work; the trio uncovering which floor they’re really on, the mysterious puddles of goo, and the eerie female voice luring them down. But even a short story relies on structure and without a decent set-up or pay off, the horror feels totally disconnected from any genuine impact. DASHCAM told a similarly simple story of falling into an unknowable darkness but the obvious distinction is pacing. The entire crux of the terror here is becoming trapped in an endless staircase, except they don’t! They reach a bottom, of sorts, exceptionally quickly and then escape up top just as fast. The Staircase is so dizzyingly truncated it feels aggressively edited down from a half hour short to fit alongside the others. Nothing in DASHCAM needed to be explained; horror is often most haunting when incidental, but the scares here are so abrupt I have no idea what’s happening. It all comes across like a pitch for a feature, all terror and no substance.
A Tangled Web We Weave
Lucky for us, those past two are the outliers against four solid stories. A Tangled Web We Weave displays a measured control The Staircase was sorely lacking, which is strange as all six stories were co-written by Enzo Tedeschi, who directs this one. David (Nicholas Hope) is put in a tough dilemma; his online date is arriving for dinner, but his house has a rat infestation. The other shorts sacrificed character depth for establishing mood, but Hope manages to develop a nuanced performance maintaining David’s strict OCD composure with mounting anxiety. He refuses to let a rodent seize control over his life, covering entire floors in rows of neatly aligned traps, but the constant chittering grates on his senses during the night. Tedeschi mines the uncomfortable situation for suspense, allowing us to get suitably (un)comfortable before pulling the rug from under us with a twist conclusion which is cleverly established and well earned.
Even his date Ellen (Barbara Bingham) is allowed time to make an impression; warm and receptive to David and doesn’t even mind when alerted to the slight pest problem. This marriage of story with the primal horror is expertly executed, a conflict in some of the others; The Staircase has is all shocks no substance and No Pain No Gain wants us to care while being rushed through their story. The ending may come off as light, Deadhouse Dark is a particularly gore-free affair, but the horror we don’t see here suitably leaves our imaginations to run wild thinking about the deadly webs we could become trapped in.
I disparaged No Pain No Gain for not fitting into a horror anthology, and I have to be fair that even that has more blatant horror than Mystery Box. But whereas I was disengaged with that emotional narrative, the foreboding ambiguity of this short delivers a far more effective and rewarding suspense. The surface event of Sophie (Lauren Orrell) waiting for her mother when an ominous package sends her spiralling into a poignant exploration of recognising grief. The most elusive of the shorts, Mystery Box provides far more abstract material to dwell on long after the credits which can’t be said for the cheap thrills of the rest of the anthology. Writer-director Rachele Wiggins manages to escape the trappings the others befell of hasty endings, she carefully unfolds her narrative culminating in a revelation that reverberates back through Sophie’s story.
Perhaps the most effective trick employed is overtly tying this horror together with one of the other stories. A reflective piece on anguish, we’re allowed a deeper empathy having essentially undergone the same ordeal, the only shame is that I wish we could’ve extended our time with Sophie’s escalating nightmare to further experience the impact this finale brings. Supposedly every entry has connective tissue with this, but I certainly didn’t notice them on a first viewing and given half of them are supernatural horrors, I fail to see how they enrich each other by co-existing, especially with the most emotional narratives.
My Empire of Dirt
The best was saved for last, as My Empire of Dirt steps up to the plate with the outright frights of DASHCAM, the crawling tension of Tangled Web, and poignant resonance of Mystery Box. Health care worker Demi (Akosia Sabet) is tasked with easing the dying Grace (Anni Finsterer) through her final days. Grace is a hoarder who insists on remaining in her trash-infested home which Demi resolves to clean, but amongst the waste there may be something far more disturbing festering away. The atmosphere contends with being as thick as the grime encompassing every inch of this house; a truly disgusting set design that has you scanning every frame something that doesn’t belong.
If you covet cleanliness, this short will immediately get under your skin. If you don’t convulse at the bathroom encased in sanitary pads and bags of shit, then you’ll cringe at Grace vomiting her blood freely or having it sapped out through a needle in her chest. What’s so effective in all this nastiness is that all her bodily waste is transforming the house around her like a hive, connecting her with her home. When we discover what else remains buried, figuratively and literally, inside the house, it reveals a theme that displacing the elderly from their homes is much like evicting them from their bodies; their lives and everything they identify with lies inside those walls. The strong performances from both Finsterer and Sabet sell the weight of letting someone die as who they are and not what you think they should be.
In conclusion, Deadhouse Dark is worth your time in exploring this connected, if fractured, universe if largely because of is brevity. The themes and motifs are all over the place with some entries leaning entirely on technology and others ignoring it entirely, and the wider scope of entailing everything within the mystery box amounts to little more than easter egg scavenging. Shudder is dedicated to highlighting horror in all forms and while anthologies and modern technology are showcasing how concise a truly great tale of terror can be told, I would’ve liked to have seen all six of these stories be given the space to breathe more comfortably in a half-hour format.
AUSTRALIA | 2021 | 6 EPISODES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writers: Kristy Best, Denai Gracie, Joshua Long, Rosie Lourde, Megan Riakos & Rachele Wiggins.
directors: Denai Gracie, Joshua Long, Rosie Lourde, Megan Riakos, Enzo Tedeschi & Rachele Wiggins.
starring: Nicholas Hope, Gemma Bird Matheson, Barbara Bingham, Roxane Wilson, Lauren Orrell, Naomi Sequiera, Anni Finsterer, Eliza Nicholls, Jenny Wu, Zoe Carides, Sarah-Louise Collidge, Ali Kitinas & Kathy Luu.