Adelaide director Ursula Dabrowsky (no info) has made two modest but vastly entertaining horror movies and they are entitled Family Demons (2009) and Inner Demon (2014).
Family Demon is presented in the strangest of narratives – like the crime or crimes in the movie, they too are strange – physically and psychically. And yet they are a part of everyday.
It starts with a woman burying a corpse in what seems to be a suburban backyard, a trail of blood leading to the shallow grave from the house. The woman, a girl really, scrubs the path clean… then someone has been given a necklace with the letter “P” on it – a schoolgirl… but it is not the murderer methinks!… And it is still the credit sequence. Ursula Dabrowsky’s Family Demons has begun!
In the preceding opening spiel we read how murders such as these happen in sleepy, conservative towns such as Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.
Family Demons is a story of a girl who lives with her alcoholic mother. This poor girl seems housebound with the echo of the kitchen clock ticking loudly in the background. It is a girl isolated and very possibly on the edge – but she carries on as normally as she must in an unhappy household..
The film is obviously shot on video which shows its budget. It was filmed on a budget of around $30,000 including post-production and using some of director Dabrowsky’s own money…
But to go back… back when I was growing up in Adelaide, before I left in my late teens – you were brought up knowing the strange and horrific murders and abductions that happened in that city…. They are the tales which are benchmarks for cities, when you started to lock your doors and supervise your children.
I was born in the suburb of Glenelg, where the Beaumont children, three siblings disappeared in 1965. It was Australia Day on 26 January and the children asked to catch the bus to the beach in the next suburb. They were abducted and aged only nine, seven and four and were never found.
Then there was the 1973 disappearance from Adelaide Oval during a football match of eleven-year-old Joanne Ratcliffe and another four-year-old. The parents had let the girls go to the toilet by themselves and were never seen again.
Then there’s what is known as The Family Murders which began in 1979 with the discovery of the bodies of young men and teenagers horribly mutilated almost as if someone had done surgery on them. One of the teenagers was my age – fifteen-year-old Richard Kelvin – and when I did work experience in the city shortly after his abduction and murder by a group of homosexuals who kept him on hypnotic drugs at one of their homes, my family and fellow workers feared about me walking through the lonely streets to catch the train home in the evening. One man was charged with Kelvin’s murder and he was the only one of what was thought to be a core group of eight men that were involved in the crimes which were all linked. They went unpunished. Meanwhile children never travelled unsupervised as they used to in Australia again.
Another key crime in Adelaide’s history is the Truro murders, where the remains of seven women were found outside Adelaide near the town of Truro. They had been murdered over a two-month period in 1976-77. I remember it in the media as a child. The skeletons just kept coming and police discovered the murders only stopped because the main instigator of the killings Christopher Worrell was killed in a car crash. His much older homosexual partner survived the car accident and ended up being the longest serving prisoner in the South Australian penal system before his death from cancer.
Do you see how Adelaide has its demons even though it is not a very big city?
Dabrowsky’s Family Demons is a fiction inspired by such events… it has a young female protagonist named Billie who is harassed by males in a predominantly working-class neighbourhood with its one-punch attacks and lonely lanes. Our heroine has escaped her mother and her mother’s toothless lover she brings home… but as her mother warned her the world outside is no better.
She occasionally escapes the house further over time. She meets a young man who has turned up on her doorstep one day but she shoos him off. Hoons harass Billie later as she goes to the shop starving for food, and this young man tries to help her – thus the one punch attack.
“…Maybe she’s a vampire… I’ve got something better than blood you can suck on,” says a pursuer of heroine Billie, played by actress Cassandra Kane.
With scenes of suburban backyards containing marijuana – the drug long-decriminalised in South Australia – the film is mainly shot in a run-down residence, apparently a house in West Croydon in the city’s inner north. Dabrowsky’s scripts are ingenious in their use of cheap but atmospheric locations. The best low-budget films are!
When the girl returns to her “home” her mother beats her…
And Dabrowsky’s films, especially in this case, are so low budget, they could be done no other way. Family Demons would have been spoilt by a a bigger budget, by bigger names in the cast and special effects. Not to mention hit songs littering the soundtrack.
Cassandra Kane apparently won Best Actress at the 2009 Louisville Fright Night Film Festival for her performance in Family Demons.
As her mother played by actress Kerry Reid says in a haunted state to Billie – she sees an aged female ghost: “It’s all your fault I turned out like this. I hate you! I hate you!”
It is here we see the problems of families with major dysfunction, to say the least, as Billie’s mother passes out on the floor while Billie is chained to a sink in the laundry.
Is the ghost Billie’s mother sees the ghost of Billie’s grandmother? Her mother’s mother?
“She beat me senseless,” says Billie’s mother about her own mother after possibly learning she had been raped on her way home from meeting her boyfriend who had given her the “P” necklace. Billie is the result of that rape.
“Desperate and determined to ruin my life,” cries the drunken mother who thinks she deserves better. I am giving a skeletal rundown of the movie…
The dialogue in Family Demons captures something: urgency, paranoia, desperation and the ugly horrors associated with chronic alcoholism. And it is done subtly as well. Dabrowsky has a genius for screenwriting.
While her mother is in hospital, Billie and her new “boyfriend” go to the beach – it is the first time she has ever seen the ocean, or felt the touch of sand.
“Piss off bitch,” says Billie’s mother to the ghost which haunts her even in the hospital.
South Australia is especially full of ghosts, by some reports, although living in a one-hundred-year-old house as a child I’d never been in touch with one, although my little sister had an encounter in the kitchen one night when the glowing figure of a woman approached her in the dark. It frightened the eight-year-old very much. But we continued to live there.
I wasn’t a believer in ghosts and manifestations of energy back then. My grandfather made sure of that by making sure I laughed with him at Judith Anderson’s line in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940): “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” Or whatever it was. But then he always told me that nothing is impossible!! Quite a contradiction.
You may find regular ghost tours in Adelaide these days.
Billie returns home and the clock ticks past midnight as her boyfriend promises to return… maybe she shouldn’t have tried on the dress her mother gave her, but there is a psychic connection with her mother… who returning ghost-like from the hospital back to the bottle and abusiveness, stabs her daughter in the arm with a broken bottle and tries to break down a door to kill her… But her mother hesitates when confronted by the ghost of her own mother, which gives Billie the opportunity to slay her alcoholic parent with a hammer.
For horror fans, it’s nice and bloody… for fans of Adelaide murder lore, it is another untold story as Billie buries her mother as we are at the beginning of the narrative once more.
What is strange is that for a moment there is no trail of blood when we see it again for the first time. Is it the damned reliving a horror?… Then the trail is there as though even when the blood is washed away it will always be there. Maybe it’s a continuity goof!
It’s not all over for Billie, as her mother still lives, crawling from her grave… It’s all a bit spooky for a spell as murder and ghost story and almost a sense of a reincarnation of crimes past become one.
In the dark, as Billie hopes her boyfriend turns up… all she gets is an empty spirit bottle that rolls across the floor. How poetic! And a cupboard that squeaks as it opens by itself next to the generic cans of spaghetti. What does that cupboard hide?
These scenes are good moments of basic chiller material and Dabrowsky handles it well, and I don’t know if the fact it is shot on video reduces or adds to the horror. Certainly, in terms of those “found footage” movies, video often works better, although we know there is more to this film than some of the many poor found footage movies that have made their way to cinemas and onto our small screens. I think it works better.
But the horror continues… Is it her mother or her mother’s ghost in the house? Or neither? Certainly, by the way she steps across the room it could be a ghost… and as a ghostly breeze passes through Billie’s hair when we see her mother, it’s a ghost … a zombie almost… It’s probably the most powerful scene in the film. And I’ll go on telling it because by the time you find a copy of the film you may have forgotten what I’ve said…. Except for its essential qualities!
Billie escapes upon morning and wanders the streets… only to end up unknowingly raped by her mother’s dentally challenged boyfriend… Billie awakes as if it was all a nightmare, but there is no bottling wound as she is told of her mother’s death in hospital by phone. A ghost! An hallucination? Or a psychotic break?
She goes to dig up the shallow grave as we see her boyfriend enter her home one dark night as they had planned to escape together that night. The grave is empty… or is it? It wasn’t her mother she killed but her boyfriend. Or so it bloody well appears! It’s enough to drive a girl mad!… And Billie brings up her child of rape chained in the laundry where she once was chained… And Billie drinks the nights away, all the while being watched by the spectre of her mother… The cycle of poverty, sexual assault and alcoholism continues. Stranger things have happened and the inability for some families to break the cycle, whether it is physical or sexual violence and other alcohol related issues… something haunts and overshadows them, whether it is just their minds, whether it is some sort of psychic phenomena or just plain ghosts.
Family Demons is a surprising and very good movie which demands more than one viewing. In fact, I almost dismissed it entirely after starting to watch it, but now after several viewings, I am not afraid to tell you all about it because you really may want to watch it again. It rewards. I am amazed that it was made at all… especially in Adelaide. And while it is not directly related to the murder aspects of the major Adelaide crimes… I bet many a body lies buried in suburban backyards, no matter which city you live in. Dabrowsky’s determination to bring us a good horror tale has paid off.
Family Demons beautifully blends ghosts and murder, rape and alcoholism, love and hate. I could go on…
I will go on about serial killers and ghosts in other Aussie films including Dabrowsky’s Inner Demon in PART TWO.