Director: Benji Wragg
Writer: Benji Wragg
Cast: Anne McCaffery-French, Rebecca Fletcher, Lauren Huggard, Oliver Midson
Running time: 7mins
One of the most basic elements most ghost stories play upon is the feeling of having a base-camp. By providing a warm familiar space they can relate to, those engaging with the narrative can feel at peace in its early phases. Later, when the characters they relate to through this setting begin to feel threatened beyond its boundaries, the audience can feel a sense of relief when they find themselves back in this thematic womb. But the most beautifully cruel element of this bait-and-switch is that along with the character, they are living through a misplaced confidence that they are still in control –and the most terrifying moments of the story come when the supernatural gradually encroaches upon those seemingly impermeable walls, before finally tearing away that perceived security-blanket altogether.
That base-camp is most often a literal place – an office, a house, a bedroom – largely, I suspect, because of ideological assumptions which tie property ownership to individual fulfilment and security. But it can be something less material, too – a loving relationship, a happy memory, or even just rays of afternoon sunshine, enveloping you in their warmth. Benji Wragg’s latest short horror, The Darkened Cottage, uses the beautiful golden-hour lighting of Australia to its full effect, to offer us up a refreshing inversion on the old socio-political norm that the home is our last true refuge.
Cinematographer Scott David Lister – whose work I have praised before – deserves a great deal of credit here. While Wragg is credited as the writer for this film – which has no dialogue, and precious little visual exposition – the creation of both that secure base-camp, and the ratchetting up of tension from those realms of apparent safety, rest largely on Lister’s shoulders. Lister’s imagery does the former, by capturing some gorgeously hazy, gold-tinged shots of Jennifer (Anne McCaffery-French) as she tinkers with her garden. The moment Jennifer retreats into the shadowy confines of her house, however, as cosy as she tries to make it, Lister’s lens picks out every darkened crevice and hanging silhouette around our protagonist. Even as she reads by a flickering candle, amorphous shapes loom behind her. Meanwhile, the darkness also seems to drip from otherwise unthreatening family photos, the shadows cast below them suggestive of some unknown malevolence steadily seeping out of them.
Gaffer Paul Predator also deserves a great deal of credit for the atmosphere constructed in the cottage. His lighting work is formidable here, turning a generally unremarkable space into a mass of darkness, scarcely kept at bay by Jennifer’s lonely lamp. That is before the narrative really begins to ramp up – at which point, his work becomes central to its progression – with flickering, strobing lights momentarily illuminating approaching horrors, and repeatedly confirming that light was in fact only ever an illusion of a refuge. That gives us a taste of the desperate, scrambling horror we feel in a good ghost story, when we finally lose that sense of control; of knowing, or at least thinking, that we can make ourselves safe by retreating to that base-camp.
It’s not much more than a taste though. While there are glimpses of something genuinely affecting here, that could blend supernatural horror with a very real set of grim realities, Wragg’s script does not do enough of its own heavy lifting to live up to the technical promises of his team.
Without wanting to spoil how things play out – because at a mere seven minutes this is still well worth your time – we steadily see Jennifer cornered by a group of familiar entities. First, one is revealed to be watching silently from the periphery of her darkened room, as she reads a book before bed. The following day, we feel like Jennifer has escaped back into the warm confines of her dazzling garden, before the same spirit flits across the background. It feels like forces behind the film threat are testing the perimeter, looking for a way in, and as the sun begins to fade once more, it seems that they have found one – pursuing Jennifer into her house.
This beat doesn’t quite land for me at least, because Jennifer does not glimpse the spirit of the young woman in the earlier scene. There is no chance for her to respond, to shiver or suggest the sight is an unwelcome one – and without this response, we are left a little in the dark about just how to feel about the apparition. When Jennifer finally does see her in the light of day, meanwhile, the response seems to suggest confusion more than fear – until the spirit approaches.
As the story continues amid the darkened ‘cottage’ (a term which conjures up rural isolation, rather than a surrounding which seems a little too suburban to live up to that), a growing number of entities present themselves, patiently stalking Jennifer through her house while lights buzz on and off around them. Eventually, she is left cowering in the corner with one last dancing light to stave off the creeping darkness: a world away from the beautiful and bright world we first saw her in – and from the happy, fulfilled character she seemed to convey.
On the face of it then, this is quite a pedestrian A-B story. A woman has gone from living happily alone, to being cornered by a tormenting supernatural force, and that is kind of how the film ends. It would be unfair to say that is all Wragg meant to do here, but many viewers may struggle not to see it that way, because of how little effort is put into drawing out deeper themes.
Much like Answer Your Phone – another film with scarcely any verbal dialogue – there is something going on here beyond the literal narrative. It’s just that rather than subtly being hinted at, it’s thrown at us in a rather lazy manner, that will probably still go over some heads. As Jennifer passes through her kitchen in the pursuit, the camera comes to rest on a bottle of Donepezil. For readers lucky enough not to have had friends and family suffer dementia, that is a drug which is prescribed to treat some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. As there is no cure, the drug can only slow the disease’s progress, so eventually, the loving and brilliant person who might once have existed slowly descends into a darkened box, shut off from the core emotions, thoughts and memories – the light and warmth of human life – that made them who they were.
In knowledge of this, it is clearer what Wragg was trying to say with the story, and what some of the acting choices may also have been hinting at. McCaffery-French’s confused stare at the ghostly figure she first sees is a brilliantly nuanced piece of acting, but only if we are given more help to understand what she is going through, or that she is possibly being haunted by a half-formed memory of a loved-one. Unfortunately, rather than being consistently constructed, these themes have mostly been drawn out by Wragg clumsily slapping us in the face with visual evidence – which in a cinema screening, we may not have the time or knowledge to factor into our interpretations of events anyway.
High-concept horror needs a steady build, to allow for audiences to make the most of its nuances. Benji Wragg could have delivered it, with a little more patience and concentration when it came to spelling out what the underlying themes of The Darkened Cottage are. Had he taken his time, rather than rushing to deliver (admittedly great) visuals of grisly ghosts, amid dancing shadows and flickering lights, this would have been a truly top-notch effort. However, as much as I like to wonder what might have been, it is still important to acknowledge what is, and this is a technically impressive production, with excellent visual flare, and smart acting performances. And while it might seem a little early to flag up, keep an eye out for it in the 2024 Halloween Horror Showcase…