Something is off on Block Island. Harry’s father, Tom, is getting on in age and keeps spacing out and losing time. He takes the fishing boat out in the middle of the night and doesn’t remember doing so. Tons of dead fish wash up on the shores, leading Harry’s sister Audry to come home and investigate as part of her job for the Environmental Protection Agency. Is Tom exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer’s? Or is there something in the water?
The Block Island Sound is a slow-paced film. There are no jump scares or monsters. We mostly follow Harry as he (spoilers) deals with the mysterious death of his father. Soon he starts to experience the same symptoms. So on top of grieving for his father (and admittedly by Harry) his best friend, now he’s going down the same path and unable to stop it.
The color in the film is fittingly muted, with soft browns, blues, and grays. Like the overflowing tides of the ocean and empty beaches. I come from an island myself, and while it is not as small as Block Island, I can somewhat relate to the characters in this film. Not a lot goes on in the day-to-day, and you’re mostly separated from the rest of the world. Sure, there’s a ferry to the mainland and everyone has smartphones, but there’s an underlying solitary aspect to island life.
Everyone knows everyone, and when Harry starts to act off, word spreads quickly. Adding to this, his estranged sister Jen has shown up for the funeral, and their old arguments pick up right where they left off. If you can ignore the dead fish washing up on the beaches every day, this could be chalked up to stress. Harry looks more and more exhausted throughout the film, with huge bags under his eyes and a glazed expression on his face.
Of course, this is a horror website, so you and I both know there’s more going on. I feel like this is a more subtle version of The Beach House (which I also liked). Tom and now Harry experience a strange, underwhelming hunger. You can even hear an unnatural growling from time to time. Electronics also begin to malfunction when he’s nearby.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Harry goes to the grocery store to get food for the funeral. He sees a vision of his father, blank-faced and wide-eyed. He says a single word: meat. Immediately, Harry begins single-mindedly piling meat products into his cart and walks out of the store with him. After being snapped out of it by an angry cashier, he gets embarrassed and drives off.
I found this descent into their “condition” extremely fascinating and terrifying. We, and Harry, have no idea what is going on. Losing control of yourself and having it happen in public feels humiliating. He breaks down to his sister and tells her that he’s scared, and she rightly takes him to the hospital for tests. This admission is difficult for him; he tells us Tom refused to go to a doctor and told Harry not to tell anyone about his condition. The guilt he feels about this is almost crushing him.
One of the biggest hurdles in life to overcome is the understanding that we are not in this alone. Harry takes all his grief inward. He lashes out at his family, his friends. It’s hard to admit when you are going through something because society portrays this (especially with men) as a weakness. Even after you start getting help, it’s often embarrassing and awkward. It’s portrayed well in this film by lead actor Chris Sheffield. I started to feel genuinely sad for him and his struggles.
The doctor they visit doesn’t know what’s wrong with Harry but offers a hypothesis that it might be electromagnetic sensitivity, something one of her previous patients went through. Audry goes to the mainland to meet this man while her co-worker Paul looks after her 8-year-old daughter Emily and keeps an eye on Harry.
I don’t want to give away the final twist, but I can tell you I was impressed by how The Block Island Sound pulls it off in a subdued manner. As I said, there are no monsters in this film, but maybe it’s the lack of visual horror that makes the climactic scene so utterly terrifying. We have no understanding of the forces at work here. How can you fight against something so foreign? Add to this being in the middle of the ocean, with a malfunctioning radio, and whoops–you’re totally screwed if something happens to you.
There’s been some ongoing discussion online lately about the art of storytelling. If your audience can predict where the story is going, does that mean it’s bad storytelling? Do you need to “subvert expectations” to keep people interested? I don’t think so. If I can guess where a movie or show is going, I feel rewarded when I’m correct. It’s like doing a puzzle; once you have the edges figured out, you can fill in the empty space. It doesn’t make it any less satisfying to complete the puzzle. The end result is the same—it’s the fun of getting there.
One possible complaint I could see about the film is the “conspiracy theory guy was actually right all along” angle, but that doesn’t bother me too much in the context of this story. Small towns have local personalities, and it’s not out of the realm of believability that one lives on Block Island. Dale is a childhood friend of Harry’s, and it makes him putting up with the outlandish theories also plausible.
This type of understated horror is not for everyone. I myself watched this on a whim, and I’m glad I did. I hadn’t heard of the McManus bothers before this, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for their next feature. Consider me a fan.