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Fantasia Fest Review: 'The Block Island Sound' is a creepy coastal caper

Kevin and Matthew McManus' 'The Block Island Sound' chums calm waters to bring forth unrest, uncertainty, and underwater fears that surface to suspicious degrees.

The horrors of the sea are inescapable.
(Image: © 30 Bones Cinema)

Our Verdict

'The Block Island Sound' takes the idea of "siren songs," mixes in possession paranoia, and adds a spoonful of grief to make the whole thing that much more of a waterlogged nightmare.

For

  • 🐟 A buffet of subgenres.
  • 🐟 Scenery as a character.

Against

  • 🐟 A quiet brand of horror.
  • 🐟 Won't go where some want.

While I recognize their differences, The Block Island Sound scratches a particular itch The Beach House could not. The McManus Brothers, Kevin and Matthew, weaponize quaint fishing town vibes where everybody knows your name, quirks, and sins. It’s never outright Lovecraftian with glowing goo plants or such, but there’s more care within a story where unexplored oceanic depths provoke a horror tale that shapeshifts and morphs subgenres. Psychological horror, eco-horror, aquatic horror, even possession horror. It’s all done on a tight budget, which translates into minimal effects opportunities, but that doesn’t stop Kevin and Matthew from reeling in some sweet, salty coastal horror notes.

Harry Lynch (Chris Sheffield) is a resident of Block Island, a sea-savvy Rhode Island community with humble roots. Harry lives with his ailing father (Neville Archambault), who grows more aggressive and forgetful with age. At this specific juncture, a phenomenon in Block Island is causing schools of dead fish to wash ashore as well as the appearance of other wildlife carcasses. Harry’s sister Audry (Michaela McManus), with her marine biology background, is perplexed by the happenings. Too many inexplicable details, which Harry links to both his father’s behavior and habits he begins to question within himself.

Stripping away any hyperbole and fluffy descriptions, The Block Island Sound is a well-acted conspiracy thriller about the vastness of not only Earth but countless universes. The lengths our minds are will to stretch when it comes to people we love and how Harry’s not willing to accept his father’s cognitive decline. The ease with which a grief-stricken, sorrowful man would go to blame unknown origins for an otherwise mortal reality. Of course, maybe there is something beckoning Harry, and his father, beneath the waterline. That’s the mystery of Block Island. As some blame worrisome mental gymnastics, others experience the horrors of hereditary, or implanted, visions.

Chris Sheffield plays a character whose world is crumbling; who finds comfort in empty liquor bottles and isn’t taken seriously by family or friends alike. As Harry begins “sleepwalking,” or hallucinating his father’s figure as he demands animal flesh sacrifices, Audry blames alcohol and loneliness. Sheffield mixes the agony of loss with the frustration of an investigator whose rants are undermined, as Harry refuses to accept “missing” as “dead.” Performances are strong up-and-down the cast, including lil’ Matilda Lawler as Audry’s daughter, but it’s Sheffield’s outwardly selfish, inwardly tortured performance that shoulders immense narrative weight. Without his ability to empathetically enact Harry’s downward spiral, there’s be no conflating the inexplicable with experienced trauma.

The horrors of Block Island are both natural and supernatural. The natural is portrayed through Audry witnesses; beaches riddled with decay, prey upon our fears of what could exist under cresting oceanic waves. Meanwhile, the supernatural plays out through Harry's experiences; these nightmarish interludes where he’s coughing up squirmy eel-thingies or subconscious instructions to murder, instigate the suspense of brainwashing, maybe worse. The inhabitants of Block Island range non-believers to the one barroom regular with seventeen thousand far-flung theories, all of whom impact the film’s narrative flow. It’s easy to doubt when evidence is only coming from one jabbery lunatic, but once others experience what they themselves cannot explain? Tension in the form of groupthink transitions over time, while Harry becomes someone he cannot recognize.

The McManus Brothers have created something creepy, crawly, and captivating in terms of thoughtful rock-the-boat frightfulness. It’s a character study about our complicated relationship with environmental ecosystems, and how we view animal experimentation as necessary yet would consider the reverse relationship, should more dominant species exist, a threat. What happens when humanity realizes we’re not atop the food chain, or worse, being analyzed as we dissect “lesser” lifeforms? The Block Island Sound is a suspenseful fisherman's shanty and terror-fueled standoff with nature that stinks of the sea’s darkest secrets (and gunky shoreline wash-ups). More than that, it’s an admission of man’s place in natural orders, married with our inability to cope during periods of sorrow. In short, it’s a whole lotta movie in an otherwise “simple” package.