Something terrifying is happening off the coast of Block Island. A strange force is thriving, influencing residents and wildlife alike. Birds are dropping out of the sky. Some people have been dropping too, into inexplicable emotional collapse. Harry Lynch (Chris Sheffield, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT) has always been a bit of an outsider in town. Now, he watches in dread as his father (Neville Archambault, 13 CAMERAS) grows increasingly forgetful and confused. And angry. Very, very angry. His sister Audry (Michaela McManus, THE VILLAGE), whose work in marine biology will soon prove invaluable, returns to town with her daughter and immediately sees what Harry sees. Her explorations into the increasingly grisly wildlife phenomena intersects with the triggers of her father’s actions, leading them all towards chilling revelations that no one is prepared for. Revelations that will affect her family in unimaginable ways.
The second of my Fantasia Festival 2020 screenings, The Block Island Sound is easily one of this year’s festival highlights. Much like other offerings at the festival, the film leads the viewer down a particular path before revealing its true nature.
Written by co-director Matthew McManus, The Block Island Sound has a laser-like focus on its core mystery. From the outset there are events going on that Block Island residents are aware of but have no comprehension of. It sets a mysterious tone and throws the viewer in to a similar sense of confusion to lead characters Harry (Chris Sheffield) and his sister, Audry (Michaela McManus).
Much like my first film of the festival, Minor Premise, The Block Island Sound builds tension across its 97min runtime. There are twists and turns along the way which escalate until the third act when the story opens up to its grand reveal.
What sets The Block Island Sound apart is the way it shrouds its mystery in the story of its characters. Harry’s portrayal feels like the story of a genuine descent in to madness. The film could easily have used this story to craft a chilling character portrait. But instead his journey is only part of a much larger and immersive story.
Chris Sheffield does an excellent job of playing Harry. His performance toes the line between paranoia, grief and misunderstanding. As those around him believe he is struggling with his situation I felt almost convinced that they were right. If only it weren’t for that ominous, repetitive droning sound!
The way Harry is shown to fall apart after the loss of his father (Neville Archambault) is beautifully counterbalanced by his sister Audry. Michaela McManus plays the intelligent, concerned sister perfectly and the two share a strong bond as characters. Her strength of character lends credence to the theory that Harry is mentally ill and helps shroud the true mystery of the island.
As with all good mysteries, things begin to coalesce in the third act. When Audry visits another potential victim of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity it becomes clear there’s far more going on. Smaller details from across the narrative, such as the birds and the fish, become pieces of a much larger puzzle.
There are a couple of high-concept scenes which lean in to the science fiction angle of the film. They feel appropriately carried out for the level of budget and don’t ruin the illusion by reaching beyond their means. Though it isn’t fully explained exactly what (or who) is behind the goings on, the partial reveal is sure to leave audiences both questioning the ending and wanting more.
I’m always impressed when independent filmmakers are able to tailor their vision to the tools at hand. So often we find low budget films reaching to do the most they can with VFX within their budget. The Block Island Sound is a perfect example of telling a story effectively without reaching too far purely for visual spectacle.
The tense storyline is underpinned by some truly emotional moments. Exploring the mystery of Block Island also means exploring the idea of family and loss. Exploring those human emotions grounds the film in dramatic realism and is just another reason why it is so compelling to watch.
As with other films at Fantasia, The Block Island Sound looks and sound great. The cinematography maximises the wonderful landscape of the island. The colour palette feels particularly unique for a film grounded in horror. It’s feels very real and very earthy with its mix of brown, blue and green hues.
The Block Island Sound lands with an immersive mystery, stellar visuals and a third act twist which will melt your mind!
The Block Island Sound is directed by Kevin & Matthew McManus. The film stars Michaela McManus, Chris Sheffield, Neville Archambault, Willie C. Carpenter, Jim Cummings, Jeremy Holm, Matilda Lawler, Trisha McManus, & Heidi Niedermeyer.
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