Mummering Legends. 2021.
Directed by Shane Mills. Screenplay by Francois Van Zyl.
Starring Mary Walsh, Rachel Selby, Allison Moira Kelly, Darryl Hopkins, Owen Van Houten, Josh Morgan, & Christopher Bruce.
★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Into the fog we go, once more! Back to the motherland.
As always, I have to preface the pieces I write on films and television shows out of Newfoundland and Labrador with the statement that I, as a Newfoundlander myself, am a bit biased. It’s always exciting to see people from the province do cool, fun things. At the same time, I typically only write about films that, in some way, interest me, regardless of what star rating they wind up with at the top of any of my reviews. Mummering Legends, in spite of a few flaws, is a creepy short film that will interest anybody—Newfoundlander or otherwise—who has a love of folk horror.
The plot of Mummering Legends involves a girl named Jasmine (Rachel Selby) in the late 1970s who visits her nan (Mary Walsh) in St. John’s, only to be told a disturbing history of mummering in Newfoundland from 50 years ago. As Jasmine discovers, “the old ways never die,” and that what may feel like a history becoming more distant all the time is always with us.
Something that GRIND MIND do well throughout Mummering Legends is walk a solid line between representing Newfoundland well—along with its wonderful accents—while not making it too niche for outsiders. Sometimes regional fictional stories, in any medium but especially a visual one like film, can alienate people who don’t already know the people and the culture of a particular region. GRIND MIND’s film completely revolves around Newfoundland and its practice of mummering, yet the plot and story are accessible to anybody, anywhere. Also doesn’t hurt to have one of Newfoundland’s most famous faces, Mary Walsh, in a pivotal role.
The best aspects of Mummering Legends are the atmosphere and the creepy costume work. The film’s atmosphere is unsettling, like all good folk horror; at times the cinematography verges on being a bit too dark, but mostly it sets the right tone for a scary story largely set in the woods. Even the exterior shots of St. John’s capture an uneasy mood that gets eerier when the story’s flashbacks pull us not only back in time but away from the city, back to the province’s rural landscape, filled with dark and foreboding forests. To top it all off, the folk horror is made complete by the masks the 1920s mummers wear, bridging Newfoundland mummering with the province’s wilderness in perfect horror film fashion.
My one big issue is that the film doesn’t entirely nail why Newfoundland mummering is so specific to the province, as opposed to mummering in Boston/Philadelphia and various places across the U.K. Mummering in Newfoundland has a deeply classist and religious history. People from lower social classes used mummering to torment, or even rob and beat up, the rich. Similarly, mummering became part of the tensions between Protestants and Catholics throughout Newfoundland, suspected to be part of why a man named Isaac Mercer was killed in Bay Roberts during the final days of 1860 (leading to a provincial law making it illegal to wear a disguise in public). Mercer was attacked by men dressed as mummers, many believing it was a religiously motivated attack.
A couple times, GRIND MIND’s film comes very close to touching on Newfoundland mummering’s religious roots, such as a newspaper clipping that mentions a murdered reverend, or Jasmine’s nan saying “Righteousness prevails.” Ultimately, Mummering Legends never pushes any of that to the fore enough, and it’s a shame; the film’s folk horror could’ve been much stronger with the substance of history behind it.
Mummering Legends is a solid little horror short, no matter if it has a couple small issues holding it back from being truly great. The folk horror spirit is alive in GRIND MIND’s film. The story might not capture all that makes Newfoundland mummering so specifically unique to the province, but it still uses Newfoundland history and culture in a way that hasn’t been seen on film before. And this is where the importance of GRIND MIND lies, whether in this short or in their previous, much shorter (awesome) efforts: they know the value in their province’s culture, most importantly the people who make the culture so special, and they want to show it to the world.
If Mummering Legends is any indication, GRIND MIND will only keep getting better at their crafts, and the bigger their productions get, the more they show us why they’re worthy of their namesake because they’re out here grinding, making horrific, must-see art.