There’s a scene very early on in The Block Island Sound where the protagonist’s motormouth, conspiracy theorist friend rants at length about Toxoplasmosis, the condition spread by a cat feces-borne fungus that causes mice to no longer fear cats. He spins this off into the theory that this explains “crazy cat ladies” and other feline enthusiasts, and posits that similar behavior-altering fungi or phenomenon are to blame for strange events at sea. This scene, while no doubt intended as foreshadowing, does give away the plot to the McManus brothers’ otherwise interesting and effective horror thriller. Now that we know to expect strange behavior, mind control and the presence of some unseen predator, the mystery that hangs over the film becomes much less mysterious. Of course, the film does still throw in some twists and is overall quite compelling, spooky, and extremely well-acted. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that it hurt itself early on by giving away the game. This isn’t the first time the film gives away too much, either, and this tendency is the main thing really holding the film back.
Set on the small island of the title, the film follows Harry (Chris Sheffield) as he struggles to take care of his aging father, who is experiencing blackouts and fugue states. Harry is joined on the island by his sister Audrey just in time for their father to vanish after taking his boat out. Not long after, Harry begins to experience blackouts himself. Throw in piles of dead fish and birds appearing on the island with no outwardly obvious cause, and it’s very clear something is not right on the island.
The Block Island Sound functions on one level as a family drama, with the tensions between Harry, prone to anger and lacking direction, and the more successful Audrey coming to a head in the face of their father’s disappearance. Sheffield in particular plays his part with impeccable skill, channeling the character’s frustration and anger quite believably, as well as his sheer terror when it appears as though whatever happened to his father is happening to him too. He’s a jerk, no doubt, but he’s a believable jerk, one clearly shaped by his past experiences and character flaws. You feel for him, even if at the same time you wish he’d just take a breath already.
Of course, there’s more going on than just family drama, and the air of mystery and dread that hangs over the film is about as well constructed and interesting as the character interplay. That opening scene, again, undercuts some of that dread though. We have an idea of what to expect, a bit of foreknowledge that at least prepares us for what lies ahead. The film does subvert the expectation to a degree though, quite cleverly turning at least some of our expectations on its head. And even when you broadly know what to expect, it unfolds in a compelling manner and has some very effective scares.
But the film’s tendency to telegraph itself in key moments undermines it. There’s a moment at the very end where a crucial bit of dialogue from earlier is repeated in voiceover, directly voicing ideas that the film could have simply implied and trusted the audience to pick up on. It’s frustrating and on the nose and displays a lack of faith in the audience to assemble the clues themselves.
With the tiniest bit of editing, The Block Island Sound could be great. It’s spooky, atmospheric, terrifically acted, and just a tentacle away from being Lovecraftian in the best way. But it also talks down to its audience a bit, stating when it should be implying and dropping too many early hints that only undermine the mystery going forward. It’s still good, but you can see what it could have been just ahead in the distance, behind the removal of a few lines of dialogue.
The Fantasia International Film Festival’s virtual event is composed of scheduled live screenings, panels, and workshops, taking place from August 20th to September 2nd, 2020. For more information, visit the Fantasia Film Festival website.