Synopsis – A plains-woman faces the harshness and isolation of the untamed land in the Western frontier of the late 1800s.
My Take – Over the past decade, a clump of talented independent filmmakers have found their voice in the familiar confines of horror genre all the while bringing in their own spin to their tales. Similarly, here, director Emma Tammi, formerly a documentary filmmaker, brings her own taste to the formula by setting her bleak and atmospheric slow-burn horror story in the American west, a perfect palette of dynamic visuals to draw upon from.
This one is also a rare horror western that understands and uses its elements to create an atmosphere that both haunts and terrifies. As a feature debut from director Tammi, it is very assured both its interpretation of the screenplay by Teresa Sutherland, and its execution of elemental fears and the psychosis that comes with near perpetual isolation.
While the film possesses many qualities in the form of a strong lead performance, decent on-point-bleak cinematography, a crafty editing, an ambiguous and twisty plot, a very fitting original score and eerie isolated atmosphere, it unfortunately is not a film for everybody.
Produced somewhere on the lines of The Babadook and The Witch, with a similar tone of disturbing imagery, the film despite a run time of less than 90 minutes, takes its own sweet time to scratch and reach its full potential. But if you are someone who likes bleak modern folk horror films and don’t mind the extreme slow burn, be sure to give this a watch.
Adapted from author Dorothy Scarborough‘s 1925 novel of the same name, the story is set in the late 19th Century on the American frontier, and follows Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard), a young house wife who lives with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) in an isolated cabin on the prairie, from which he is absent for weeks at a time, leaving Lizzy struggling with loneliness and the psychological effects of a failed pregnancy. Things begin to change for her when Gideon (Dylan McTee) and Emma Harper (Julia Goldani Telles), another young and friendly couple, move across a cabin situated quite near from them.
However, once Emma gets pregnant, she is convinced that an evil entity is stalking her. While Lizzy immediately demises such talk at first, in order to not upset their husbands, soon after she begins to feel that that same entity has now begun stalking her. A dark and unknowable force that seems to arise from the very wind sweeping across the prairie, making her question everything around, what is real and what is not, or is she suffering from the same delusion as Emma, or do they both fear something very real.
The film blends genres by using the landscape of the Western pioneer and the horror of monsters that may still be roaming the untamed lands. Although the last act does settle into a slightly more linear style, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the temporal discontinuity, forcing the audience to question the order and often significance of seemingly inconsequential events, skewering how we would receive the story were it told in sequence, and putting us on edge from the get-go.
It really hits the ground running with a brilliantly conceived and downright ballsy dialogue-free opening scene. With Isaac and Gideon standing outside the cabin, as Lizzy emerges from within, her white dress soaked in blood, carrying the lifeless body of a newborn baby, driving home the visceral horror of whatever has just happened. And that’s even before the slam cut to one of the most disturbing and realistic cinematic corpses I’ve seen in a long time. The scene perfectly sets the tone, whilst also providing vital plot information and conveying how unforgiving the milieu can be – all without a single word of dialogue.
This is a film seems destined to receive comparisons to director Robert Eggers’s The Witch, another film that explores female isolation and abandonment. Both films present a female protagonist who is pushed towards madness by the inattentiveness of those around her; both films also depict the isolation of the period as a place beset upon by demons, both literal and metaphorical.
What the film adds is a touch of interpersonal drama. Lizzy begins to suspect that her husband Isaac has had an affair with their new neighbor, and we watch in flashbacks as her kindness towards the other woman stagnates and turns bitter. Another interesting element is the pamphlet that both Lizzy and Emma read that is called ‘Demons of the Prairie”. What is seems to be is just someone just put all of the names of the demons and what they are supposed to do.
There is a solid scene where Lizzy is caring for Emma while she is reciting the names of the demons and what they are the corrupter of. The one she says more than anything is the demon of jealousy. She also states the name of defiler of the marriage bed as well as the demon that brings locusts and drought. I like incorporating this aspect of religion to make us wonder if one of these demons is what is stalking them.
From an aesthetic point of view, although director Tammi certainly show the beauty of the landscape, they also refuse to romanticize it. This is a harsh world that will punish anyone who doesn’t afford it suitable respect, even without the introduction of supernatural elements. As the film progresses, and we get deeper and deeper into Lizzy’s psychosis/haunting, cinematographer Moncrief shoots the initially vast-open plains in such a way as to become increasingly claustrophobic – there are more scenes at night when we are unable to see more than a couple of feet; there are fewer high-elevation shots, trapping the audience at ground level with Lizzy; the skies become darker, more foreboding, and more oppressive; there are more tightly-framed interior shots.
The weather too presents a significant challenge with heavy storms, and gusting winds that whip unfettered over the flat plains and eerily whistle through the cabin. The nearest town is not near at all so most things must be produced via the land – Isaac even makes his own furniture. Reading is one of the only available pastimes that doesn’t double as a chore, but even that loses its shine and starts to fester unhealthy thoughts after a while – especially when preachers are distributing fearmongering pamphlets about demons.
Unfortunately, the film begins to stumble when it tries hard to turn into blockbuster horror flick. This is a slow burn horror film built on atmosphere and an escalating sense of dread, but there are spots where the tension falls slack, sapping the energy out of the story and like I mentioned earlier, the slow pacing don’t help matters. A great horror film feels like riding a roller coaster but this one at times, feels like walking through a dust storm.
But the thankfully, the film does manage to work on a whole, mainly because of its central performance. Here, Caitlin Gerard carries the film throughout and does a great job at it. A few other actors pop in and out, but she anchors every scene and is the driving force for the story. Gerard has a difficult job, playing Lizzy as though she is being haunted or descending into madness.
Each choice requires the actor to leave a different trail of performance breadcrumbs throughout the narrative. Occasionally, it feels as though the film is unsure which path it’s going down, making Gerard’s job all that more difficult. To her credit, she nails it, portraying a range of emotions, all of them convincing, during Lizzy’s dark descent.
In supporting roles, Julia Goldani Telles and Ashley Zukerman also add enough weight to the film, while Dylan McTee and Miles Anderson are decent in their smaller roles. On the whole, ‘The Wind’ is a slow burn yet impressive horror-western that is both creepy and unsettling.
Directed – Emma Tammi
Rated – R
Run Time – 86 minutes