Introduction: This is an unpublished piece by John that I recently came across in my files several months after his death in May 2019. I am not exactly certain how I came to be in possession of it or when it was written, but I suspect it was during the initial flurry of work done for Scott Murray as editor of Australian Film 1978-1994 (Oxford University Press) in the early 1990s. Scott’s original plan for the book (as I recall) was to include feature films that had achieved release only on video, and so various authors (including myself) were commissioned to cover these (often quite obscure and unknown) titles. In the event, however, these entries were dropped and never published. This piece on The Dreaming– a film compromised during production and diverted from its original intentions, according to director Mario Andreacchio in this 1988 interview (click on the link), – has a modest scope (as befits a reference book entry), but the critical mind and voice are unmistakeably John’s. Adrian Martin, September 2019
The Dreaming is one of several Australian films to use Aboriginal mythology as the basis for a modern thriller. Here, 1980s characters inadvertently confront terrifying images from the Dreamtime, threatening both their sanity and their lives.
Professor Bernard Thornton (Arthur Dignam) is the head of an archaeological team which discovers a sealed burial chamber on a remote island off the Southern Coast. Breaking into it, he finds and touches a bracelet and, almost immediately, he is haunted by images of a past when whalers came ashore and murdered an Aboriginal girl, Muridji (Kristina Nehm). Similar images haunt the Aboriginal activist Warindji who steals the bracelet from a museum, and the doctor who handles it when treating her in hospital after she has been bashed by guards (shades of earlier, brutal times). By coincidence, the doctor happens to be the Professor’s daughter, Cathy (Penny Cook).
Now while borrowing loosely from Aboriginal mythology, the filmmakers do nothing with their concept other than attempt to milk it for suspense. There is no explanation for what happens (as in touching the bracelet), or for why Warindji seems to be a reincarnation of Muridji, and the Professor of one of the whalers. (Both Nehm and Dignam have dual roles, uncredited.) And the spirit which possesses Cathy, and leads her to the final confrontation with her father, is never identified.
That would all be okay if the film gripped one’s attention, but it fails singularly to do that, leaving the audience sitting there pondering questions that shouldn’t be asked. Essentially, the fault lies with a script which in its ordering and construction of scenes seems to actively mitigate the suspense, relying finally on unconvincing shock moments. And too often the writers resort to that tiredest of clichés: a character waking up just as horror is about to engulf him or her, thus revealing it was all only a dream.
As well, director Mario Andreacchio seems uncomfortable with this sort of material. The action sequences are poorly staged, particularly the climactic one in the lighthouse, and much of the dialogue is handled perfunctorily. There is also a sloppiness one doesn’t expect even in a B-film, such as when Cathy’s husband Geoff (Gary Sweet) is knocked out of his rowboat by a whaler ship. As the ship passes, Geoff is seen in the reverse close-up to turn his head to watch in the wrong direction. Now mistakes can be made in shooting, but why wasn’t the shot flopped over in post-production to fix it? Those involved seemed not to have cared.
Made in South Australia with obviously limited resources, this film went straight to video early in 1989.
© Estate of John C. Murray