Zeda Muller's feature debut opens with John (J R Hall) enjoying a countryside walk with his girlfriend (Jordi Miles). They encounter a house on the hill which the locals believe to be haunted. Believing the place to be empty and vowing to protect her from any potential ghoulies, John encourages his girlfriend to join him on a visit to the house where they intend to make out. All does not end well for our would-be lovers.

Next, we meet Marjorie (Hanika Nankervis). She arrives in town via train. It's been 13 years since she was inexplicably ushered away from the family home by her mother (Julie Young). Now mummy has sent her a telegram advising that she's gravely ill and has a long-buried secret which she must share with Marjorie before she dies. As Marjorie reaches her mother's decrepit mansion, we realise it's the same house we saw in the opening scene. The sullen nursemaid (Amy Waite) lets Marjorie in and, as the electricity in the house is so temperamental, leads her to her mother's bedroom by candlelight. She points out mother's medication to Marjorie, and then leaves the mother and daughter to it. Alas, mother dies that night, before she's had the chance to reveal her secret.

Beguiled, Marjorie decides to stay on at the house she's just inherited. Rather than sell it, she's now more determined than ever to unearth the figurative skeleton in her mother's cupboard. "Oh mother, why did you send me away for all those years?" she ponders. The plot thickens when she begins exploring her mother's belongings, and discovers old family photographs which suggest Marjorie has a sibling she never knew existed. She also finds a creepy child's drawing, which hints at the bloody stabbings to come.

Small wonder then that Marjorie suffers from violent nightmares that evening, in which a masked killer in black gloves attacks her in her bed with a blade.

The following morning a group of girl friends arrive at the house to visit Marjorie. No longer restricted to nightmares, their arrival is followed by very genuine murders. A killer is in their midst, their motives linked to mother's family secret and the clues Marjorie has thus far uncovered. But who is behind the mask?

As my synopsis no doubt spells out, 13 DOLLS IN DARKNESS owes a lot to the giallo genre in terms of storyline, location and various motifs running through it (the black gloves, the masked killer, the violent death scenes, the whodunit element to the plot). In an age where neo-giallo homages are on the rise (THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, FRANCESCA etc), Muller's film stands apart from the rest of the bunch by virtue of its delivery. That is, the film is shot in the style of silent era cinema.

It's an approach which is employed with complete conviction. Although shot on HD, there's a persuasive grainy look to the black-and-white photography, the (intentionally?) over-exposed imagery and flickering visuals working alongside a constant whirring projection noise on the soundtrack to help events feel like a movie from the 1920s. It's impossible not to recall the likes of NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY OF HORROR or THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI during expressionistic moments such as Marjorie's nightmare sequences - flashes of skulls, the shadows of hands approaching door handles in ominous fashion etc. Inter-titles provide the sparse moments of dialogue in text form. The soundtrack, aside from the aforementioned whirring, is a mix of ethereal piano-led score (include segments of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake") along with howling wind and church bells.

Striking images of graveyards, trees, Christ representations (statues, crucifixes and so on) keep the exterior shots interesting. But the vast majority of the film is based inside the convincingly creepy house on the hill. There's a definite "arthouse" bent to the visual elan, which only adds to the film's overall captivating qualities.

The plot is slight and we've witnessed it a thousand times before. But what's novel here is Muller's marrying of slasher movie violence, giallo tropes, German expressionism and rich Gothic aesthetics. 13 DOLLS IN DARKNESS is a labour of love, a film for horror fans, made by an ardent horror fan (in an interview with Dread Central, Muller described the film as "THE CAT AND THE CANARY meets THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES").

Relatively short at just 75 minutes in length, Muller's film was - incredibly - made for just 250 Australian dollars (roughly £150). I suppose the post-production distressed look helps hide any shortcomings the micro-budget may have been exposed to if shot in colour and with spoken dialogue (Muller had her cast largely improvise their scenes, working from a loose synopsis stored safely in her head; I believe this, along with the gimmick of inter-titles substituting dialogue, helps avoid one of the all-too-common major issues of no-budget filmmaking, terrible performances).

13 DOLLS IN DARKNESS is a most impressive achievement. Its style probably isn't for everyone, but if you love horror films that flirt with arthouse allusions and take the time to pay homage to various sub-genres (from the old-dark-house genre to referencing PSYCHO, and beyond), and you're not averse to a film told in the form of a silent movie, then you really need to check this satisfyingly literate piece out.

Muller is currently planning to release the film onto independent DVD shortly. We'll keep you posted.

Review by Stuart Willis

Directed by Zeda Muller