Change, no matter what, is hard. Humans grow accustomed to routine and reliability and become disappointed when their nostalgia is challenged. Alternatively, change can also be exemplary or even just necessary. Breaking out of a regiment can benefit the soul, allowing us a new perspective or a chance to explore the unexplored. As a viewer first and then a critic, I immediately fell in love with Black Lake and have been very vocal about it over the past few years on Horror Obsessive. So, when K/XI outlined her plans for Black Lake: Director’s Cut, the now definitive version of her 2020 feature, I was excited and scared, as I Imagine K must have been herself.
In a recent Horror Obsessive podcast, I asked K/XI why she felt Black Lake needed a Director’s Cut:
“I had finished scripting my third feature film, Vessel, and I just thought, ‘I’m not quite ready for this yet.’ So, I revisited Maya, got that out, and we had the screening at Renegade Film Festival last year, so February 2022. We won best film, it was very well received, and there was just so much love for it. And, when I came back to London from the trip to the US with Maya, I thought to myself, ‘Right, let’s get on with Vessel’ ‘cause I was supposed to start filming Vessel toward the end of last year. And I thought, ‘No. There’s something wrong with Black Lake. The energy just isn’t right.’ […] The energy just felt bad and after seeing what I had done with Maya, like kind of correcting the energy, revisiting it. I felt like I wanted to go back to Black Lake and, with the person I was then and the growth that I put in—I started meditating, journaling, and all sorts of things and I had to reconcile something within myself for Black Lake to work.”
I can understand what K/XI is saying and why it is meaningful to her to have this story told right. As a native of the UK with Pakistan roots, K’s frustration with the world flows from her, seeping into the dark, dread-ridden portions of the initial telling of Black Lake. The film hauntingly argues for justice from a place of immutable rage over the untimely death of twenty-two-year-old Jyoti Singh, who was tortured, sexually brutalized, and murdered during a bus ride home from a movie theater simply because she was out late, 9:30 PM IST, with a male friend. K/XI’s film isn’t a true-story adaptation of true-crime events but focuses on the cultural prejudice against women in Southeast Asia.
Adversely, Black Lake: Director’s Cut sincerely creates a moment that links the character and the creator, who both desperately want to go back in time and affect change for someone they’ve never met and feel an unearthly connection for. This scene is new and expresses in pictures a sentiment from V for Vendetta, a film that helped inspire Black Lake: “But what I hope most of all is that you understand what I mean when I tell you that even though I do not know you, and even though I may never meet you, laugh with you, cry with you, or kiss you. I love you. With all my heart, I love you.”
Black Lake thematically encapsulates many women’s rights issues into a ninety(ish) minute slow burn of societal condemnation through Lynchian abstract expressionism, traditional folk horror elements, and Sam Raimi-inspired terror. The movie concerns Aarya, played by K/XI in addition to writing, directing, and producing, who travels to housesit an empty country house and escape the pressures of city life in London. Aarya’s aunt Ayaneh (Aditi Bajpai) welcomes her with a surprise gift of a beautiful handmade scarf purchased while on holiday in Pakistan. However, after receiving the gift, Aarya is plagued by vivid dreams, odd occurrences, and becomes the subject of nightmarish violence. It isn’t long before Aarya realizes that these supernatural afflictions stem from the alluring yet cursed scarf and force her to realize she’s in the grips of a churail possession.
The churail is a generations-old campfire story spread throughout southern Asia. Churails (or churels) are always women possessed by demonic forces for a myriad of reasons. If a woman dies tragically, she may return in this form, but any woman who acts out against cultural conformity standards may be considered possessed by a churail. K/XI recognizes the hypocrisy, and that is what makes Black Lake so astoundingly powerful.
Black Lake: Director’s Cut is impressively different from K’s first release of the film. In fact, it’s almost a completely different moviegoing experience. Right from the start, there are noticeable differences. From establishing shots to serene landscapes and an almost meditative amount of silence from the absence of dialogue, K has reworked her film into an almost entirely different yet equally provocative feature.
Even the original score has been reworked to feature new material by the exceptionally talented Teagan Johnston (The Strings). As someone who went and bought a copy of the vinyl soundtrack right after seeing the film three years ago, I now immediately want the Director’s Cut soundtrack. Johnston’s enhancements are radically complimentary to the dynamic tonal shift and approach of the Black Lake: Director’s Cut creating nerve-shredding tension to ripple across key moments of the film.
As Black Lake: Director’s Cut progresses, there are expanded scenes with Aarya’s aunt, a more distinct rapture occurring between Aarya and the bewitched scarf through her dreams, a deeper understanding of the events that led to the creation of the churail, and new scenes that poignantly weave reality and fantasy together in a less discernable but truly heartbreaking manner. Contrarily, there are still scenes from the primary cut that remain in the greenhouse scene, which has always unnerved me and continues to do so, though I can’t remember the hair-raising chill of Aarya’s name being called before. Shoutout to sound designer Tatsujiro Oto for sending that resonant shiver up my spine this last go around. Ultimately, this still results in the movie’s intense and inevitable conclusion.
Women everywhere confront horrendous ordeals because of misogynistic societal values. From chauvinist commentary about how assault victims were dressed to facing religious zealots protesting outside Planned Parenthood. Imagine suffering through a traumatic event, something most people will likely never go through or completely comprehend, and naturally being transformed by it only to be judged, belittled, condescended to, or attacked. It’s enough to make anyone scream.
K/XI devastates the audience in Black Lake’s final frames. Aarya is returned, hardened from a night of unspeakable brutality, and made monstrous through transgressive acts committed toward her. The cycle of violence disseminates through an endless loop of sanctimonious patriarchal domination via the folklore that discredits women by declaring possession. It’s allegorically gut-wrenching and begs for change. Though the original cut does it more through the fury that it happened, the Black Lake: Director’s Cut infuses a sense of love and care that wasn’t as alluded to before.
I love K/XI’s work. She is a one-of-a-kind under-appreciated auteur working in the medium, making passionate, socially relevant films. The color palettes and cinematography always pop in a K/XI movie, the themes are entrancing, and the journeys she’s created in both Black Lake and Maya have been unforgettable. Black Lake: Director’s Cut felt slightly more linear to me than the original, and having seen the first cut of the film led me to conduct my own research and learn more about the underlying story of unfathomable cruelty from which it was conceived. In other words, I may prefer the original cut because I already knew a lot about the film before seeing the newly minted Director’s Cut. As a fan, I don’t know that it was necessary, but it’s still the same movie. I will never dislike Black Lake, no matter what version of it I see.
With this Director’s Cut, K/XI is outright saying that she’s not ready to move on from the injustices done to Jyoti Singh that profoundly moved her to lovingly dedicate Black Lake in her memory. Black Lake: Director’s Cut will forever stand as a voice crying out for change, and, as I said at the start, that is difficult to do. K isn’t giving up, and neither should we. Remember Jyoti Singh. Affect positive change in any way you are able. Elevate the story if you must.
Black Lake: Director’s Cut held its world premiere after the conclusion of the Renegade Film Festival in Atlanta on March 5. The film is currently on the film festival circuit.