The Block Island Sound. 2020.
Directed & Written by Kevin & Matthew McManus.
Starring Michaela McManus, Chris Sheffield, Neville Archambault, Jim Cummings, Ryan O’Flanaga, & Jeremy Holm.
Captain Inertia Productions / 30 Bones Cinema / 79th & Broadway Entertainment
Not Rated / 97 minutes
Horror / Sci-Fi / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay discusses theories about the film & contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
If you keep scrolling, be warned.
Kevin and Matthew McManus have done a lot of interesting stuff over the past decade, such as writing and directing the excellent little comedic drama Funeral Kings, producing and writing Cobra Kai and American Vandal, producing horror sleepers like 14 Cameras, and penning episodes of the stylish series Da Vinci’s Demons. They’ve returned to writing and directing their own stuff, this time with the mysterious horror-science fiction film The Block Island Sound.
The McManus lads tell a story about Harry Lynch (Chris Sheffield), a young man stuck at home going nowhere. Now he’s watching his father (Neville Archambault) go senile. Or, maybe something stranger’s going on. When his sister Audrey (Michaela McManus) comes home with her daughter, their father disappears one night out in his boat. While Audrey and the rest of the town figure it was an inevitable conclusion for an alcoholic who often went boating while drunk, Harry’s not so sure. He starts to investigate strange phenomena happening on the island, convinced it’s related to his father’s disappearance.
What he uncovers is more horrifying than most conspiracy theories.
The Block Island Sound is a horror, and it’ll chill you often. That being said, once you reach the end and the story’s been revealed to its fullest, the film takes on more meaning through its science fiction. Fiction of all sorts involving extradimensional beings depict them either as friendly, goofy many a time, or, most often, hostile entities seeking to ruthlessly study humans or destroy us entirely. What the McManus brothers posit is that perhaps, while frightening, the abduction experience that’s been happening to people all over the world since the beginning of time is actually meant to help humans in the long run. And maybe it’s because we’re making a goddamn mess of the planet.
Conspiracy theory places a big part in the film because, in the beginning, Harry has no time for his friend spouting them. The big problem with conspiracy theories is that they’re not always threatened by verifiable truths— conspiracy theories can’t always be disproved, no matter if they can’t be proved either, and those are the areas where conspiracy theorists thrive, in the spaces where fact cannot yet defeat fiction. Conspiracies have always been a problem politically, now we live in an age of the Great Orange Menace, whose fascist attitudes have opened the door for conspiracy theorists to step right into the mainstream. While we face serious issues like anti-Black racism in America, as well as racism in general everywhere, and the increasingly negative effects of climate change, people online are more concerned with conspiracy theories like QAnon. Harry’s conspiracy theory buddy from the bar is a perfect embodiment of online theorists. He’d rather pontificate about an old woman becoming a “slave to her cat overlords” or “chemtrails” and other theories than actually do anything to change the world in which he lives. For all Harry’s flaws, at least he goes out and does something palpable about his theories.
A significant element of the film’s paranoid, stressful atmosphere is the fact we’re unsure whether Harry is experiencing delusions. Up until the final scenes the story could easily be about serious hereditary mental illness, seeing Harry’s father succumb to its horrible effects before Harry himself experiences them, too. Harry actually goes to the doctor to make sure he isn’t ill, though has an upsetting MRI experience. Another doctor suggests it’s a rare electromagnetic hypersensitivity, also recently depicted in Michael McKean’s character on AMC’s Better Call Saul. There’s plenty of evidence, before we find out the truth, that Harry is spiralling into madness. When Harry starts talking about the possibility of an extradimensional nature to the strange events around the island, including his father’s disappearance, he looks like he’s having paranoid delusions— a good deal of schizophrenics will attribute voices they hear to aliens attempting communication with them.
But there’s way more to it than Harry could ever comprehend.
“He just refuses to believe the most obvious, simple answer is right.”
Human hubris and narcissism is confronted through the potential reality of extradimensional beings presented in The Block Island Sound. Humans love to foolishly believe, in our never ending existential narcissism, that we’re the most intelligent life in the entire universe, never mind that we’ve only explored a tiny fraction of it so far. We think we must be the most advanced species because we lord over animals and insects and aquatic life, because we study and define life beneath us, and write the scientific texts that come to define our natural world.
But what if it’s us who are the frogs in the jar, like Aubrey’s daughter keeps to learn about? What if a higher life form is abducting and studying us? Moreover, what if they’re doing it in the hopes of helping us in the long run— not only us, but the Earth we’ve so effortlessly been destroying since the Industrial Revolution. What if we’re not as advanced and intelligent as we purport to be, and we’re actually just helpless creatures incapable of taking care of ourselves or the world around us? Maybe we’re babies compared to much older, much smarter beings.
Animals are a massive part of the plot. First there’s mention of all the strange dead fish washing up and gulls dropping out of the sky. Then a gull hits Harry’s windshield. We see Aubrey’s daughter with her frog in the jar. Later the human-animal interactions turn sinister as Harry purposefully runs down a deer, only to move on to kidnapping a dog with nefarious purposes. What I find compelling is how we can interpret extradimensional beings treating humans like test subjects as an allegory of how humans treats animals/nature. To the fish and the frogs and everything else, we are the alien life form coming into their habitats, pulling them out, doing tests on them, killing some, and all without explanation, no ability to properly communicate. The fright we get from the idea of extradimensional beings— being snatched up by a spaceship, probed and prodded without consent— is the effect we have on the natural world, using it for our purposes, sucking things up as we go and spitting them out in our wake.
The Block Island Sound is a film that creeps up on you until you’re completely tangled in its narrative. There’s a dreadful atmosphere throughout, aided by that distinctive, eerie sound we hear via the perspective of Harry and his father. Michaela McManus and Chris Sheffield provide performances that carry all the horror-science fiction energy, rooting the genre elements and big themes in a drama of a divided family. Their brother-sister duo feel real, and so does their existential terror.
The McManus siblings have created a unique, scary vision of extradimensional beings. Regardless of how you want to interpret the film, or if you simply take it as a well-told mysterious story, The Block Island Sound is a haunting and also magical experience. Although there’s a sense of despair in the end there remains an air of possibility, too. The film’s closing moments left me feeling like I did as a kid when watching scary stuff that likewise had a sense of wonder in it— full of exciting potential that takes flight off the screen and spreads its wings in our consciousness.