Horror as Folk: If We Shadows Have Offended – The Idea of Dreamtime in Kadaicha and The Dreaming (1988)
Dreamtime, also sometimes called the Dreaming or Everywhen, is a concept that looms large in the modern cultural understanding of Australian Aboriginal folk beliefs. How accurate it is to those actual beliefs – either as a concept or a term – is a subject of considerable debate, and more than we have space to really get into here. Fortunately, for our purposes, it also doesn’t really matter.
The idea of Dreamtime, as we generally see it expressed by non-Aboriginal writers, is this concept of a sort of compressed history – a mythical time that took place before the present but also exists contemporaneously with it, accessible through dreams. In the Dreaming, all of your ancestors are around at the same time, and it is their shared experience that is the root of our current knowledge.
Again, it doesn’t really matter whether this is an accurate depiction of what was, in actual fact, a complex and nuanced series of different beliefs taken from disparate peoples scattered across an entire continent. What matters is that this is how these beliefs are usually presented to modern audiences, and it is this idea of the Dreamtime that permeates these two Australian folk horror pictures contained in Severin’s All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set.
In Kadaicha, actually the second movie on the disc, but I watched them out of order, this takes the form of a plot that feels like a portmanteau of a lot of what was going on in American cineplexes at the time. Specifically, it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street if Freddy Krueger were an Aboriginal shaman and the inciting incident was what people think Poltergeist is about.
I had actually tried watching Kadaicha on Tubi before I dug into this set, not realizing it was contained here, but I stopped because the print on Tubi looked terrible. Turns out the print here looks about the same. I’m guessing that the materials used to remaster Kadaicha for high-def weren’t the greatest. Which is perhaps unsurprising, as the film seems to have had very little in the way of a budget.
Aside from the architecturally fascinating high school, there’s not a lot of visual interest in Kadaicha, which is unfortunately what sets it apart the most from the films it seems to be emulating – after all, Elm Street and Poltergeist were, among other things, some of the more visually inventive movies of their era, when it came to special effects.
Other than a few bits of gore makeup, there aren’t really any special effects in Kadaicha. The eponymous shaman’s spirit can take the form of various animals like spiders, dogs, and fish, which means that most of the death scenes involve intercuts of close-ups of animals with the characters screaming or thrashing around. That’s about it.
The Dreaming, also released in 1988, is a lot more visually inventive, and fortunately the print here also looks a little better. This flick also makes its connection to the idea of Dreamtime more explicit, beyond even the title. The opening text crawl describes “blood thirsty” (white) whalers who “discovered natives who cherished a mystical power they called their Dreaming.” These encounters led to “rapes, killings, massacres,” with the result being “a taint on the Dreaming.”
“A taint that lives on into the present time and a new nightmare…”
Indeed, this “taint” is the fulcrum on which The Dreaming turns, combining the narratives of an archaeologist who discovers a cave containing the bones of these early victims and his daughter, a doctor who treats a young Aboriginal woman who dies of her wounds after being brutalized by museum guards in the midst of reclaiming artifacts taken by the archaeologist.
On paper, the collision of these two narratives seems inevitable, but the film takes its time even letting us know how intertwined they really are. It isn’t until about the midway point that we learn that the doctor and the archaeologist are even related.
The Dreaming isn’t a film that’s interested in holding the viewer’s hand over much, is what I’m saying. Beyond the most surface reading, its themes need to be sussed out – in part because I’m not entirely sure they completely connect. As is often the case in a movie like this (and as was certainly the case in Kadaicha), there’s a question of why we’re centering the experiences of white people in what is emphatically an Aboriginal story. But then, The Dreaming seems to almost justify it, depending on how you read its various subtexts.
The connection between the archaeologist’s work excavating (and ultimately robbing) the sacred sites and the raping and violence of the whalers is heavily telegraphed but never really stated, and if the purpose of centering his daughter’s experience is a “sins of the fathers” kind of thing, giving her the opportunity of making reparations by undergoing the suffering that the whalers inflicted on their original victims, that almost makes this all work – but you’re going to have to do some of that legwork yourself while watching.
Something else you’ll have to do is deal with the fact that the blades the whalers wield look an awful lot like hockey sticks, which makes them weirdly harder to be scared of than they probably should be, all things considered.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.