In the Winter Dark (1999) poster

In the Winter Dark (1999)


Australia. 1999.


Director – James Bogle, Screenplay – James Bogle & Peter Rasmussen, Based on the Novel by Tim Winton, Producer – Rosemary Blight, Photography – Martin McGrath, Music – Peter Cobbin, Visual Effects – Animal Logic Films, Special Effects – Cineffects (Supervisor – Rodney Bourke), Production Design – Nicholas McCallum. Production Company – R.B. Films/New South Wales Film and Television Office/The Premium Movie Partnership.


Ray Barrett (Maurice Stubbs), Richard Roxburgh (Murray Jacob), Brenda Blethyn (Ida Stubbs), Miranda Otto (Ronnie)


Living on a farm in the Australian Outback, middle-aged Maurice Stubbs and his wife Ida think that they hear noises in the nearby woods at night. In the morning, they find a slaughtered animal. At the same time, neighbour Murray Jacob, a man from the city who has come to live in reclusion nearby, finds his neighbour, the young pregnant Ronnie, whose boyfriend has just left her, lying unconscious in the field and brings her back to his place. She runs out when she finds Murray has undressed her but returns to ask his help when she finds that all her ducks have been mysteriously slaughtered. The four of them come together in an effort to find out what is killing the livestock. Ronnie tells about a group of cultists in the area who ritually slaughter cats, while Maurice thinks that foxes or wild cats may be responsible. As he and Murray go hunting for the source of the killings, Maurice with increasing obsessiveness, buried secrets that each of the four hold begin to emerge.

In the Winter Dark is a fascinating Australian film that received a modest degree of acclaim when it first appeared at various film festival screenings, although has hardly been seen anywhere outside of these. The film was written-directed by James Bogle. Bogle has made only three other films – the Aboriginal curse horror Kadaicha (1988) and the psycho flatmate black comedy Mad Bomber in Love (1992), while this was followed by the non-genre drama Closed for Winter (2009).

In the Winter Dark falls into what one could almost call a mini-genre of Australian Outback horror films. This also include the likes of the great The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Incident at Raven’s Gate (1988) and Miranda Otto’s previous vehicle, the muchly underrated psychological horror story The Well (1997), and to a lesser extent films like Wake in Fright (1971), Razorback (1984), Frog Dreaming/The Quest (1986), Undead (2003) and Wolf Creek (2005). The Picnic at Hanging Rock, Raven’s Gate and The Well, as well as In the Winter Dark, all see the Australian Outback as an inherently mysterious realm. All feature protagonists who are living on its edges dealing with some ambiguously supernatural threat that hovers at the edge of periphery, existing as much in the minds of the protagonists as it does in actuality. There is frequent suggestion that what transpires may be just as much hallucination caused by isolation.

In the Winter Dark starts with a compulsively fascinating opening:– Ray Barrett sits on a porch and we get his voiceover: “… as though dead people, broken people bleed things into me like there’s some pressure point because they can’t get it out any more, can’t get it told. It’s like the things that need telling seep across to me in my sleep. As if there isn’t enough holding down your secrets.” As he sits, we get flashes of him asleep beside Brenda Blethyn that are abruptly punctuated by images of violence.

Richard Roxburgh and Miranda Otto in In the Winter Dark (1999)
Richard Roxburgh and Miranda Otto

It is only apparent at the end of the film that what we are seeing is a flashback rather than a glimpse of what is about to transpire but in watching such a haunted voiceover accompanied by these disturbing flashes, the film opens with a stunning sense of predestination, of bad things that are about to happen and a sinister threat hovering beneath the waking world. Even if this is later proven misleading, it is a stunning and beautifully brooding opening for a film.

The menace of what is in the woods and killing the livestock is never seen or even explained. Nevertheless, James Bogle keeps the sense of ominous mystery looming throughout. There is that intensely weird moment where Brenda Blethyn places her hands inside the imprint made of the animal footprints and finds that they fit her hands perfectly. Just like The Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bogle reaches a point where he leaves the entire mystery hanging – who or what was responsible the animal mutilations? What happened to Ray Barrett and Brenda Blethyn’s child (where we are given the impression that either it drowned or that he poisoned it by holding it to the exhaust pipe of a car)? The fadeout that In the Winter Dark reaches, where all the elements of the dream/flashback opening fall into place and we see Ray Barrett sitting on the stoop waiting until forgiveness and redemption arrive, is thoroughly haunting.

It must be said that James Bogle’s focus throughout is less on creating a horror show than it is on creating a tightly acted character ensemble. More than it is a horror story, In the Winter Dark is an actor’s film. It is carried by the four leads – classic Aussie rough diamond character actor Ray Barrett, the fine and underrated Australian actor Richard Roxburgh who has since gained a modest international profile, Midlands British import Brenda Blethyn and the waifish Miranda Otto, subsequently of The Lord of the Rings fame.

Trailer here

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