Australian director Zeda Müller introduces her debut feature, 13 Dolls in Darkness, a clear-cut homage to both the giallo flair of the 60’s and 70’s and the silent film era in its visual aesthetic.
A young woman returns to her childhood home to care for her estranged ailing mother. Following a 13-year absence she uncovers a deadly secret at her mother’s disintegrating mansion but the terror doesn’t end there. With a plethora of conventional symbolism and a giallo-approved twist, 13 Dolls in Darkness is an ambitious project which acts as a throwback to classic cinema.
When observing the stance of horror films in 2017 it’s fair to say that there is nothing quite like 13 Dolls in Darkness out there at the moment. However, it’s familiarity lies in the fact that it is honouring two pillars of genre cinema that are beloved by seasoned audiences. 13 Dolls in Darkness fits into its own niche and despite the high praise it has received through renowned horror sites such as Dread Central and a slew of imdb reviews it is an acquired taste and a potential audience divider.
In the last few years neo-giallo has attempted a bit of a comeback with European filmmakers at the helm. There was the controversial crowd-splitter, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) and the highly enjoyable Francesca (2015). 13 Dolls in Darkness does slide into the same bracket as the aforementioned movies through making a return to a distinct style of cinema but it also stands on its own.
It’s nowhere near as convoluted as Strange Colour as it features a structed plot but on the other hand it’s not as gripping as Francesca. Müller’s vision is driven in authenticity in both the film’s storytelling and overall look. Combining the visual style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) with a classic plot reminiscent of Dario Argento is a challenging feat and to a degree it does work but as previously stated 13 Dolls in Darkness is essentially a marmite film.
The main struggle with 13 Dolls in Darkness is the over-exposure in its lighting technique. Incorporating the sound of film reel crackle, a grainy filter and flickering lights all contributes towards staying genuine to the genre it is replicating; however, the level of brightness is blinding at times and it’s difficult to distinguish what’s going on.
According to the trivia section on IMDB, a heavy amount of improvisation was involved in the film. As there is no dialogue whatsoever there needs to be a strong direction to steer the film along. Actors were given free reign and no rehearsal time, a formal script was not provided. It’s extremely experimental but does explain why the final product does come across a bit on the flimsy side. As the film is virtually a no-budget project, timing restrictions may have affected this but imagine what could have been achieved with more time and practice.
Of course, not every film requires a coherent narrative in order to be captivating but if that is a preferred requirement for film enjoyment then the lack of structure will impact that aspect significantly for the viewer. Music takes up a large portion of the film, it’s an alternative to the extinction of the dialogue and the dreamlike, chilling piano score creates a creepy atmosphere, working in the film’s favour.
Artistic, experimental films that are wholly ‘style over substance’ will not be for everyone. 13 Dolls in Darkness has its merits and has found an audience it can appeal to. It’s an interesting debut feature and passion project for Müller with its hybridity of giallo, a traditional slasher narrative and German expressionism. While the ‘arthouse horror film’ isn’t my personal cup of tea, it’s important to remain open-minded however 13 Dolls in Darkness did not hold my attention.