Today we are taking a look at Kevin and Matthew McManus’s Science Fiction Horror movie The Block Island Sound. Family drama, grief, substance abuse and entirely too much drink driving are the order of the day so let’s take a look.
I am going to preface this review by saying a few things. The first is that The Block Island Sound is an extremely slow burn horror movie. I imagine some might even class it as “Not Really a Horror“. Did you know we have a tag for that? Click it and you will probably see 90% of the movies that I have ever reviewed. Most of them appear to be barely horror movies.
Is this an issue with the modern definition of horror? Or is it a problem with the industry, as a whole, and its gravitation toward drama? I don’t know but slow burn, drama based, horror is on the rise. The Block Island Sound is extremely slow. It is not very “scary” and, honestly, it leans far more towards a science fiction drama than it does a horror. I will say unequivocally, if you are looking for pure horror just don’t bother. You will be wasting your time and likely angered by the slow pace.
I will also point out that, outside of these couple of paragraphs, I will be avoiding the words “Lovecraftian” and “Cosmic Horror” in this review. These are lazy descriptions for a wide range of themes. Throwing them out arbitrarily at every other science fiction horror movie is a bit of a trend lately. I really don’t want to hop on that bandwagon.
It reminds me of the college kid obsession with referencing Schrodinger’s cat even if it doesn’t apply to a situation. Or the first year psychology students tendency to diagnose random people and to reference “cognitive dissonance” and “gaslighting” despite being completely out of context and inaccurately applied.
A number of Lovecraftian themes are present in The Block Island Sound, this is true. But many of those themes are the foundations of modern horror. There really aren’t many genuinely Lovecraftian movies around. I am not sure The Block Island Sound would satisfy true Lovecraft fans. In my opinion, it lacked the oh so important feel of a Lovecraftian horror movie. Here is a fantastic list of Lovecraftian movies from Mike at Lovecraftzine.com that have that genuine, authentic, Lovecraftian feel. Okay I am going to stop saying Lovecraftian.
The Block Island Sound focuses on a family as they attempt to deal with the strange occurrences on Block Island. Audry, played by Michaela McManus, is sent to Block Island to investigate the washing up of dead fish on the beach. Audry works for the Environmental Protection Agency but also grew up on Block Island.
Audry sees this as an opportunity to visit her Father Tom, played by everyone’s favourite 13 Cameras voyeur Neville Archambault, and Brother Harry. Since moving to mainland Rhode Island, she doesn’t see her family much. Audry brings along her daughter and her assistant Paul, played by Ryan O’Flanagan, who also doubles as a convenient babysitter.
Upon arriving Audry is informed by the police chief, played by Willie C. Carpenter, that 10 tons of fish have washed up on the beach recently. Audry and Paul begin their investigation. They discover that there has been a number of strange phenomena reported on the island as of late. Something appears to be amiss in Block Island.
Audry’s research has to take a back seat when something happens to her Father, Tom. He has been acting strange as of late. He has been drifting off in everyday life, becoming unaware of his surroundings and fixated on certain objects. Her brother Harry, played by Chris Sheffield, has noticed Tom leaving for hours in the middle of the night.
Harry has found Tom standing in the garden in the dead of night staring at the neighbour’s dog. Tom has also been waking up on his boat in the middle of the ocean surrounded by fish and other items. This time, however, Tom doesn’t come back so Harry and Audry set out to find him.
It isn’t long before Harry is exhibiting similar symptoms. He becomes distant, blacks out when doing things, is fixated on certain objects, and becomes increasingly detached from reality. Aubry sets out on a mission to find out what is causing the issues and for something that can help her brother.
The Block Island Sound is a slow burn, mystery, science fiction, drama, horror type thing. Centred around a family in turmoil, much of the focus is on the fragility of the human mind and the insignificance of life. Most of the movie follows Harry who is a flawed character with deep issues. Seeing the mystery of the island through his eyes, we witness his attempts to understand what is happening.
Harry is seemingly oblivious to the strangeness of the island. That is, until it impacts him directly. His conspiracy theorist friend explains that things 0n the island have been strange for years. Harry just never noticed until he was part of it. The viewer is given an opportunity to share in his emotional reaction to the things taking place. His sister, Audry, affords us a more scientific and fact based view as well as a mediating factor when it comes to Harry and the world around him.
Clocking in at 1 hour and 39 minutes, The Block Island Sound is not in a rush to get anywhere. The pacing feels fine for a slow burn movie, however. The small cast is ideal for keeping the story contained and relatable. We are watching a small group of people who have no explanations react to a declining situation.
Having a small cast is a great idea for a movie like this. I do feel as though, at times, the character writing is somewhat uneven. I found a few of the characters unlikeable which didn’t help. Characters sometimes act in a manner that is somewhat unrealistic. I know they have to further the plot but it can be jarring at times.
This leads to some strange scenes and some weird interactions. Harry engages with a conspiracy theorist friend at one point. Harry normally ignores this friend’s ramblings but this time he seeks him out. This only serves to confirm that there is something strange with the island. That much is already obvious.
Audry has a similar scene where she interacts with a person who suffers similar symptoms to Harry. This only serves as extreme exposition. A breakdown of events for the viewer, just in case you didn’t get it. It rarely felt like the movie needed these things and they don’t really go anywhere. This seems to happen a few times.
The movie sets up a plot line and then collapses it a scene later. One minute a character is engaged in a research montage, the next he is drunk driving and hitting a deer. The research is inconsequential to the plot. It does keep you guessing, however, and helps you to appreciate the character’s confusion with the situation at hand. The characters are desperate and scrambling for answers.
I hated Harry but I think that might be the intention. You are supposed to see him as a self important asshole. He reminded me of a discount Chris Pratt with more anger issues. An uneven performance from Chris Sheffield doesn’t really help matters. Sometimes he is fantastic at conveying Harry’s struggles. Other times he seems like he is trying too hard to seem like a cool antihero. He gets better as the movie goes on but early scenes are awkward and feel forced.
I did not enjoy Michaela McManus as Audry. Some of her delivery is strangely sinister. There is one scene where she is explaining, to her daughter, the work she does. Due to her strange manner of speaking, bizarre facial expressions, and odd cadence, it came across somewhat creepy. I am pretty sure that was not the intent. She has a permanent smile and appears to be grinning in the most inappropriate situations. Her manner of speech is perpetually condescending and I found her character difficult to like.
Neville Archambault was absolutely fine. I think he is quite underrated and it was nice to not see him play a weirdo. There are a few scenes, however, where, to illustrate Harry’s struggles, they have Neville’s character appear and they are awkward as fuck. Audry’s daughter, Matilda Lawler, is really good and very natural. Ryan O’Flanagan is great and probably the movie’s most likeable character. The rest of the cast does a decent enough job.
The Block Island Sound does a really nice job of keeping you guessing. It offers up a number of feasible explanations for the events of the movie. Each one could be applicable and would fit nicely. It plays with the recent trend of using heavy metaphors in horror movies, as well. I often complain about this but it is really well done here. I particularly liked how it never committed to one particular idea until the end.
The atmosphere is suitably heavy and foreboding throughout. There is a constant feeling of tension and the hostility between the characters adds to this. Harry is the main focus of the movie and he is a troubled individual. This leads the viewer to not trust Harry and to wonder what events we are not privy to. I really enjoyed this. Harry is a bit of a train wreck and his flawed nature lends plausibility to a number of explanations. This helps maintain the mystery of the island and places us in the shoes of the people surrounding Harry.
I understand that this is likely deliberate but everything is so gloomy. The Block Island Sound is an ugly movie. I don’t know if they were going for a dreamy, slightly hazy approach but I don’t feel as though it worked.
Cinematography is bland and uninteresting despite having a fantastic setting. Colours are muted and camera shots are generally by the numbers. There are a few shots that are framed in the exact same way at different points in the movie. This felt a bit lazy. Each scene should be an opportunity for innovation but The Block Island Sound occasionally takes the easy road. It works for anime, after all.
I did enjoy some of the methods used to reflect Harry’s fragile mental state. There was some very nice innovation there. The focus on the sea did a good job of making everything around it seem small, as well. Given the theme of the movie these shots were very fitting.
There was one scene, however, with the camera placed behind the lights of a police car. Obviously this made me think the director has never seen Police Squad or Naked Gun before. Actually, I hope they have seen them and it is a nod, that would be awesome.
There are a few scenes featuring visual effects, but they are generally not over done. One of these incidents did look particularly comical, however. I never find it to be a good thing when something in a horror movie looks like something out of a slapstick comedy. I assume this movie is low budget but some things are best left unseen. We can make our own judgement on what something looks like. Maybe it was another nod to Naked Gun?
It is worth me pointing this out once more. The Block Island Song has a very slow pace. This will absolutely put a lot of people off. Pure horror fans will likely not be a fan of this. There aren’t a huge number of scares and this feels like a dark Sci-Fi drama more than a horror movie. It thrives off of atmosphere and tension, not jump scares and action.
It does keep the mystery element of the story chugging along nicely, however. Most people who tolerate a slow burn will stay fairly engaged. There are rarely any moments without story progression and I didn’t ever feel bored. I do tend to enjoy slow paced horror movies, however. I am a big fan of Saint Maud, for example, and a lot of people absolutely hate that movie.
The Block Island Sound is another movie classed as horror but is actually a blending of genres. There is most definitely an impending sense of doom throughout. There are some scenes that could be described as distinctly horror. But the movie itself is far more focussed on getting across the interpersonal drama, implied alcohol issues, and suggestion of declining mental capabilities than scaring the viewer. Everything is firmly grounded in reality until it isn’t and that’s when you might roll your eyes or stand up and applaud.
From what I can gather, some people loved the ending of The Block Island Sound and some hated it. I will be covering it in our Horror Movie Ending Explained section over the coming days so look out for that.
I felt pretty ambivalent about it to be honest. It is a satisfying ending in as much as it explains the actions of the characters. The call back to an earlier plot point ties everything together fairly well. On the other hand, it was anticlimactic and I could have lived without the typical Hollywood addition in the last few seconds.
One thing is for sure, some people will love it and some will hate it. It might tie everything in a bow for you or leave you wishing you had watched something different.
The Block Island Sound is a difficult movie to recommend to traditional horror fans. It is a slow burn science fiction movie that is heavy on the drama and light on the thrills. Fans of horror movies that build an atmosphere and tell a story should find plenty to like.
Acting can be a mixed bag at times but is generally fine.. Characters are somewhat unlikeable and it is hard to care about the movie's protagonists. Harry is a character who is deeply flawed, however, and this adds plenty of depth to the events of the movie.
The film is a little on the bland side to look at but the location is fantastic. There are no real scares but you can cut the tension with a knife. An ending that is sure to divide opinion may leave a sour taste in some people's mouths. The Block Island Sound keeps you guessing and, if you can tolerate the slow pace, there is plenty to enjoy. Just don't go into this expecting a traditional horror and keep an open mind.