Fantasia Festival, Film, Film Review

FANTASIA REVIEW: The Block Island Sound (2020) dir. The McManus Brothers

World premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival

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The Block Island Sound refers to a small body of water off the coast of Rhode Island, through which a ferry shepherds residents from the small island community to the mainland. It also refers to a deep, ominous croak, rattling through the staticky airwaves of radios and walkie-talkies, as well as through the brains of a handful of unlucky souls. It’s the sort of sound that you might attribute to the local wildlife– or, if you’re watching a horror movie, to the sound designer. But those on its wavelength, it is deafeningly loud, and when it tells them to do something, they are powerless to resist.

Chief among the afflicted is grizzled, widowered fisherman Tom Lynch (Neville Archambault), who lives on the island with his grown son, Harry (Chris Sheffield). Tom hasn’t been the same since his wife died of cancer, but lately he’s been more not-the-same than usual: blacking out, sleepwalking, and occasionally waking up adrift on his boat with no recollection of casting off. Tom’s behavior worries Harry, but is overshadowed somewhat by the rafts of dead fish washing up on the shore and birds falling out of the sky. It is this phenomenon that draws Tom’s daughter, Audry (Michaela McManus) to the island; she’s an EPA agent, and is summoned to figure out what’s happening. Audry clearly doesn’t keep close contact with her family– the tension is evident as soon as she arrives, and anyway she’s got a young daughter of her own to deal with. But she soon realizes that something is very wrong with her father, and that her brother very well might be following in his footsteps.

Perhaps cruelly during this stay-indoors summer, we’ve seen a number of films this year set in New England beach communities, from the Mainer noir of Blow the Man Down to the Cape Cod body horror of The Beach House. Curiously, The Block Island Sound plays almost like an exact halfway point between the two. Like Blow the Man Down, Block’s sense of place is crucial to its success. From the moment we meet Harry and his friends in the too-brightly-lit vinyl booth of their local watering hole, you know exactly what kind of town you’re in, especially if you’ve spent any time in backwoods New England (I can’t find any information about where writer-directors Kevin and Matthew McManus grew up, but it feels significant that they’re Emerson alums). This is a town where everyone’s business is everyone else’s business; you can sense why Tom and Harry are inclined to open up about their troubles, and why Audry is disinclined to return for any length of time. One of Harry’s best friends is a greasy conspiracy theorist played by Thunder Road’s Jim Cummings (think a townie dirtbag version of Agent Dammers from The Frighteners). I don’t know how universal this archetype is, but if you grew up in the sticks of New England, you know this guy.

But, of course, the location is only half the story. Like The Beach House, The Block Island Sound mines the region’s close association with the uncanny, wriggling mythology of HP Lovecraft. Wisely, the McManus brothers opt against any big, flamboyant creature effects; they understand that Lovecraft’s power lay in what he forced his readers to imagine. We never learn the exact source of the power commanding the Lynches to unspeakable acts, nor do we learn its motive (though we get some tantalizing hints toward the end). But we know enough that it is not to be trifled with: it messes with electricity, it kills wildlife, and it turns men into croaking zombies with no power over their actions. Lovecraftian horror is difficult to pull off in an inherently visual medium like film, but the McManus brothers pull it off with eerie menace.

But what’s really impressive about The Block Island Sound is the success with which it marries these two modes. This is a truly cosmic horror story with some unnerving implications about man’s place in the universe, but it functions just as well as a remarkably grounded character study. The real story here is as much about the tensions within the Lynch clan as it is about elder gods. You can feel Audry’s frustration in trying to hold together a family that never talks to each other, and you wonder about how Harry will fight free from his father’s shadow just as much as you wonder what, exactly he’s going to do with that deer carcass. Horror only works inasmuch as you care about what happens to the characters, and The Block Island Sound makes you do that in spades.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I grew up in a backwoods New England town myself, and I kept myself entertained by reading everything I could find about unexplained phenomena and the spooky shit that might be lurking just out of view. With The Block Island Sound, the McManus brothers have captured that sense of small-town dread, that the mundane scenes you drive past every day might just harbor supernatural terrors. The next time you’re driving through the back streets late at night, listen carefully as you drift across the radio dial. It’s probably just the static– but can you be sure?

The Block Island Sound
2020
dir. The McManus Brothers
97 min.

World premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival – click here to follow our continuing coverage!

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