Feature Narrative Reviews

Block Island (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Jeffrey Douglas

Writers: Jeffrey Douglas

Cast: David Warren Grunner, Diana Lee Arnold, Jen Ayer Drake, Suzanne Edgar, Ian A. Wade

Running time: 1hr 13mins

One of the things I love most about horror is its propensity to make Hollywood’s mainstream studio system look clunky and out of touch. Because of its otherworldly, nightmarish groundings, horror can allow for greater risk-taking on a lower budget, often making it one of the most imaginative and subversive arenas in modern cinema.

A clunky, tightly controlled production like Fox’s A Cure for Wellness can cost $40 million, having been designed by committee and apparently genetically engineered for box office success via test screenings and focus groups, but be so incessantly dull as a result of that that it will only recover $12.1 million of its costs. Meanwhile, smaller studios like Blumhouse and Monkeypaw Productions are capable of creating high-concept horror like Get Out or The Invisible Man for under $5 million, and still pack out theatres by tapping into the ideological fears or political/cultural zeitgeist of the current moment.

Horror is a beautiful genre in this case, because in an industry defined by avoiding risks at all costs, everything mainstream cinema is allergic to – playing down social divisions, ensuring everything plays well to families, walking on eggshells for growing markets like China – has to go out the window, if your film is going to succeed. It’s the reason that independent horror films can compete with their studio equivalents, and even outperform them – something which means the genre has always been a firm favourite of mine.

In many ways, Block Island does represent some of the best elements of independent horror. It centres on a single set and a small cast to avoid overstretching its modest budget, but is still able to ratchet up the tension by smartly reading the assumptions of the audience, and turning them against us.

Paul (David Warren Grunner) is a true-crime writer, struggling to get to grips with a case in which a young man slaughtered his entire family. He determines that the only way to understand the killer’s mind-set and emotions regarding the horrific act is to revisit the remote community where he grew up. Renting a house for the weekend on Block Island (part of Rhode Island State) he continues to struggle with the work until three other guests materialise.

His sisters Maya (Jen Ayer Drake) and Alex (Suzanne Edgar), and Lilith (Diana Lee Arnold) seem to settle Paul, and by extension the viewers, as we assume they help ground him with pleasant memories, and a network of support. We assume his sisters bring with them happy memories of childhood, even in distressing times – as a sudden storm buffets the house, knocking out the electricity, they ask if he “remembers that storm” from when they were small – while the more ambiguous Lilith comes across as a friend, and possibly former lover. As they seemingly flirt after her arrival, we determine there is still ‘something’ between them; or at least there is a surviving fondness from their former life together.

What writer/director Jeffrey Douglas then does so skilfully is to gradually deconstruct that feeling of being grounded, of being safe and knowing where we are, by turning those relationships on their head. Paul’s sisters begin to berate him for ‘leaving them’, something we initially assume to be regret that the three of them had to go their separate ways into adulthood, but soon becomes something much more sinister. Meanwhile, Lilith similarly alludes to Paul’s failures in a past life, becoming an unnerving, nagging personification of superego, lulling him into feeling secure by offering him words of forgiveness before snatching them away with a stony “YOU COULD HAVE DONE MORE.”

As the situation continues to spiral out of control, with the tempestuous storm outside cutting off all routes of escape, and leaving the house in perpetual darkness, we learn more about Paul’s previous life with the increasingly ghoulish figures digging at him from the shadows. Like The Grudge or Mine Games, Paul’s current temporal narrative becomes increasingly knitted into a grander time-warp motif, eventually revealing just why he is finding it so hard to put his current writing project to rest. This brings with it the gradual realisation that we cannot trust these figures – figures many of us likely related to from our own experiences and happy memories – becomes truly terrifying.

Just as the character of Amelia in The Babadook is unable to find comfort in the institutions of private property or motherhood, despite being raised to sanctify both aspects of life, in Block Island we are left to doubt one of the few ideological crutches we are allowed in this atomised economic age; while economic and political forces might abandon us, we have always been assured that the last resort of our families would have our best interests at heart, and protect us. Once we accept that this might not be the case, we are left twisting in the wind, alone in a world of unseen dreads.

Unfortunately, while Block Island has a solid enough core to draw genuine fear from its audience, it also has a series of technical flaws which greatly diminish its overall impact. For a start, the “rented place” Paul is holed up in is clearly a member of the crew’s home – most likely either Douglas’, or producers Leila Borazjani and Maura Monahan Grunner. The problem is that whoevers house it was, they do not seem to have been that committed to changing it for the sake of the film’s mise-en-scène. While their cellar cinema is undeniably impressive, for example, and could allow for some eerie viewing experiences like the attic in Sinister, leaving large photos of Marlon Brando and co on the wall makes it seem like a cosy den for film-buffs, rather than the site of some great trauma. The lack of a solid commitment to set-creation here is only highlighted by the collection of Weimar cinema in the cellar – especially The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with its stunning stylistic sets underlining a lack of effort here.

While that might seem pernickety, it is just a taste of things to come later. As the apparent hurricane begins to flood the house, characters venture into the basement to find that it is ‘flooding.’ The flooding is never visualised, we only hear that the splash of water under foot, so I can tell you for a fact that the production did not have permission to actually flood the house. Similarly, when Block Island looks set to do the common trope of having an overflowing sink basin or bathtub indicate something going awry in the upstairs bathroom, it kops out by only showing a small stream of water trickling down the side – while sound effects again suggest there is a flooded floor conveniently out of shot. I think it’s fair enough that the owner of the house didn’t fancy having to dry or refurbish their basement or bathroom after this, but what I would urge other filmmakers is that if that is the case, don’t ‘flood’ the house at all – do something else.

Add to this the film’s rushed ending, and Block Island’s solid motif feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. This includes a medically dubious suicide attempt – which seems someone lose consciousness 20 seconds after slashing their wrists – and an even more doubtful application of first aid, which seems to consist of slapping someone around the face in the hope that they ‘come around’ from blood-loss. Later, the film’s surviving cast members attempt to tie everything up with a rushed message on mental health, which would have worked very well had it been a running thread through the rest of the film, but as it is feels tagged on as a means of tying everything up for the sake of brevity.

Other factors, such as some terrible ‘drunk’ acting; the strange issuing of radio news updates at 10:45 instead of the top of the hour; and the fact Paul seems very much to be the same age as his father (Ian A. Wade), serve to further draw us out of the film, and away from feeling truly afraid or impacted by it. When considered alongside an over-the-top, cliché horror score, and the hackneyed inclusion of a caped phantom which may or may not be an aspect of Paul’s imagination, and it’s hard not to feel like we’re being bullied into overlooking some of the film’s weaker elements.

If we look beyond the juvenile jump scares, heavy-handed musical stings, sterile set and clumsy insertion of an archetypal Scream slasher into this film, there is undeniably something here. Block Island has some impressive core elements, and clear signs that Jeffrey Douglas could pull off an effective, thought-provoking and low-budget Blumhouse-style horror, if he returns to the genre with another effort. If he and his team can apply a little more common sense to their next production, and a bit more restraint when it comes to influencing the emotions of viewers, he could well end up making something which will keep us checking over our shoulders, long after the credits have rolled.

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