Natalie Erika James
By Erin Wiegand
Like many filmmakers working in the horror genre—as well as their fans—Natalie Erika James traces her interest in horror all the way back to childhood. “I was obsessed with books as a child, and particularly darker fairy tales. That in combination with having very vivid nightmares growing up (maybe something to do with the aforementioned books) probably drew me to the horror genre.”  Currently working out of Melbourne, the Japanese-Australian filmmaker has already established herself with just a few short films as a director to watch closely.
Her 2016 short film Creswick screened at over sixty festivals around the world, including the New York Film Festival, Fantasia, and Fantastic Fest. The film, which draws on James’ own experience caring for her father, is about a woman who returns to the rural, remote house she grew up in to visit her ailing father. Memories triggered by the house and the surrounding woods become merged with childhood fears and her father’s dementia, which begins to make its presence felt in increasingly tangible ways.
James says her primary inspirations are Gothic and Asian horror, particularly when it comes to her preference for a slow build of tension and deep attention to atmospheric eeriness over shock horror and jump scares. These influences are palpable in Creswick as well as in her most recent short, Drum Wave, which premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in 2018. Drum Wave, which James also identifies as “folk horror,” follows a newly married pianist, Yun, who travels with her husband to the isolated island community where he grew up. Staying in an enormous house overlooking the water, she is invited by her husband’s extended family to take part in a dance and fertility ritual, while she is haunted by the vision of a spirit that has followed her up from the sea. This spirit, which James says draws on general folk traditions of fertility goddesses as well as a long-necked ghost known as ‘rokurokubi’ in Japanese folklore,  provides a visual signifier of Yun’s unease and ambivalence about motherhood and family.
A shared element in Creswick and Drum Wave is the manifestation of fears, anxieties, and emotions—particularly those long-repressed or stemming from childhood—as monstrous or otherworldly entities. When asked about her creative process around finding the right images to convey these fears, James replies, “Generally the concept and themes come first—usually just writing about what you’re going through, or what you observe in other people. For me the ‘work’ is closely linked to life, and always intensely personal. I do also write from images that spring to mind. But you often find that images are never conceived in isolation, and usually relate to some other theme or idea you’ve had.”  In addition to themes of childhood fears and difficult family dynamics, James says she finds herself returning to several themes throughout her work, which include (in addition to the return of childhood fears and the difficulty of changing family dynamics) “finding comfort in the face of certainty of death, the heights and pitfalls of fantasy, and the alienation between label and individual.” 
James is now completing work on her first feature film, Relic, which expands on the themes from Creswick and retains its general tone and setting, but incorporates a different story and characters. Relic explores the changing dynamics between three generations of women in a family beset by Alzheimer’s, which (similarly to Creswick) manifests as a ghostly presence in their family home. According to James, the film is about “the shift in family dynamics as we slowly have to parent our parents … at its core, it explores the fear and heartbreak of dementia and aging through a horror lens.”  She’s also working on the first draft of a script for a feature-length version of Drum Wave.
In addition to her short and feature films, James’ career thus far has also found her directing commercials and music videos, most notably for the artist Life Is Better Blonde. (These videos can be found at her website.) While not explicitly dealing with themes of horror, her music videos for “Follow Me” and “Fires”, in particular, showcase the particular aesthetic and attention to atmosphere that has made her genre work unique—and worth following as it develops further.
1. Erin Wiegand, Interview with Natalie Erika James, January 2019 (unpublished).
5. Don Groves, “How dementia inspired Natalie Erika James’ horror movie ‘Relic’,” If, 31 July, 2018.
Erin Wiegand is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University (UK), where she is completing her PhD dissertation on exploitation documentary films. She is also the web editor of the JCMS Teaching Dossier [http://www.teachingmedia.org/cinema-journal-teaching-dossier/] and a volunteer programmer at the Star and Shadow Cinema [https://starandshadow.org.uk] in Newcastle upon Tyne. For her previous publications and more information, visit http://erinewiegand.com, or follow her on Twitter @erinewiegand.
Additional Resources on Natalie Erika James
Bibliography of Further Reading
Marisa Mirabal. “Fantastic Fest Shorts: An Interview With Natalie Erika James, Director Of CRESWICK,” Birth Movies Death, 30 September, 2017.
Relic (in post-production), director, writer
Drum Wave (short), 2018, director, writer
Creswick (short), 2017, director, writer
Burrow (short), 2013, director, writer
Tritch (short), 2011, director, writer
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.