Fantasia 2020 – The Block Island Sound (2020)

Directed by: Kevin McManus, Matthew McManus. Starring: Chris Sheffield, Michaela McManus, Neville Archambault. Runtime: 1h 37 min. Released: This film had its World Premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on August 28, 2020.

“Something’s wrong with the island,” says lead character Harry (Chris Sheffield) in The Block Island Sound. He’s right as Block Island, Rhode Island is being hit by an ecological nightmare as birds fall out of the sky and fish dry up on shore. Coinciding with that are blackouts and confusion that his father Thomas (Neville Archambault) is experiencing. The family drama’s heightened when Harry’s sister, Audry (Michaela McManus), and her daughter Emily (Matilda Lawler) make their way to the island because Audry is a marine biologist investigating what’s happening to the wildlife.

Neville Archambault is creepy as hell in this film, as when he blackouts he just stares, sometimes mixing in the Kubrick stare for good measure. It’s chilling. He has the look of a memorable character actor, and he’s so familiar because I’ve seen him so many times on the poster of 13 Cameras. Brothers Keith and Matthew McManus (who write and direct) create a compelling atmosphere with the first scene as Thomas, a fisherman, is out on the water and hears something over the radio. A growl out at sea. Is it Aquaman with a bad sinus infection? The Lochness Monster? Bruce the Shark from Jaws? Something bigger?

We get the answer at the end of the third act as we’re given a neat allegory about how nature’s treated (not a spoiler, by the way). The way technology is brought into this film is handled well, too. Also, I thought the film was called The Block Island Sound because of the growl and how much sound comes into play in this film, but I learn that it’s just a strait in the Atlantic Ocean by the island. Perhaps a dual meaning, eh?

Chris Sheffield and Michaela McManus in The Block Island Sound. (Photo courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival.)

Since this film’s a mystery, it comes complete with a resident conspiracy theorist in the form of Dale (Jim Cummings), who tells stories of birds falling out of the sky in Arkansas, among other things. Harry tells him that something’s wrong with the island. “You know it and I know it, I just want to get to the bottom of it.” His investigation into this starts when whatever was inflicting his father is inflicting him, too, as he’s easily confused and loses stretches of time. It’s also frustrating for his sister Audry, as well as their other sister Jen (Heidi Niedermeyer), as they just think he’s losing control over his life. He can’t exactly tell them what’s going on because he can’t quite figure it out himself.

The family drama is emotionally charged here and everyone’s fight for each other is at the core of the film. Harry’s protectiveness for his father is also heartwarming, and their relationship is at the centre of the film, as well as Harry’s relationship with sister Audry. Harry plays to the anger over his mother’s death and blaming the world over his hardships with relatability.

The dialogue’s also witty at times when the film has its “happier” moments, and that’s likely thanks to the McManus bros’ experience writing for the Netflix show American Vandal. There’s amusing dialogue in one scene with conspiracy theorist Dale talking about how cats can brainwash field mice and they might be doing that to humans, too, and he brings up a crazy cat lady called Carol Baker. I’m pretty sure The Block Island Sound was filmed before the popularity of The Tiger King, but with the McManus’ ties at Netflix they would have heard about Carol Baskin. If that’s a conspiracy, I’ll just leave those theories to Dale.

The performances in this film are a highlight, from Archaumbault as Thomas who is just eerie throughout. Matilda Lawler who plays the daughter, Emily, is good too and she feels like more than a token annoying kid in a horror film. Watching whatever is heavily influencing Harry is fascinating and works into The Block Island Sound’s atmospheric mood and mystery. Certain developments could turn some viewers off, but the McManus bros are smart and always capable of subverting expectations as they mishmash horror genres in thrilling ways.

Score: 75/100

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