19th Aug2021

Fantasia 2021: ‘Don’t Say Its Name’ Review

by Jim Morazzini

Stars: Julian Black-Antelope, Samuel Marty, Sera-Lys McArthur, Madison Walsh | Written by Rueben Martell, Gerald Wexler | Directed by Rueben Martell

Don’t Say Its Name begins in a familiar enough manner. Kharis (Sheena Kaine) walks home alone on a dark woodland road when something starts following her. Only this creature is metal, a heavy-duty pickup, its engine roaring as it charges at her. Her body will be found the next day, struck down, dragged and left to die. Not long after, a surveyor is attacked and killed in the woods. They won’t be the last to die.

Coal company WEC has closed a deal to strip mine tribal land. Kharis was an outspoken opponent of their plans and her death is believed to be their doing. Was the death of their surveyor retribution for hers? Or is something more primal turning the snow red? That’s what local sheriff Mary Stonechild (Madison Walsh; The Toll, Parallel Minds) and Park Ranger Stacey Cole (Sera-Lys McArthur; Hard Core Logo 2, Monkey Beach) have to find out.

The script for Don’t Say Its Name written by director Rueben Martell and Gerald Wexler (Are You Afraid of the Dark?, The Hunger) combines indigenous traditions and recent headlines. It uses the conflicts over exploitation of tribal lands for mining and drilling as its foundation. Conflicts both with outside interests and within the tribes themselves. Conflicts over the best way to create opportunities and lift their people out of the poverty that plagues so many reservations. And then adds a supernatural element to it.

Plots involving naive folklore, and burial grounds, have long been a part of the genre, Poltergeist, Scalps, The Manitou, Shadow of the Hawk, etc. Usually, the “folklore” in these films was made up by white screenwriters, and their roles were played by white actors in makeup. That’s only recently beginning to change as the likes of Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby (Blood Quantum) and now Martell, who’s Cree, are venturing into the genre.

Hopefully, more will follow them, not just into horror but into more mainstream filmmaking. As important as documentaries and dramas about their culture are, they have a limited audience. The way to really make inroads in the industry is to make films that reach a larger audience and make money. And if they can give an accurate picture of your culture in the process, so much the better.

Martell gives us a respectful portrayal of both the people and their traditions. They’re not a group of poverty-stricken drunks or a band of savage warriors. They’re just normal people dealing with something that shouldn’t be happening. And trying to find the money for hockey gear. The possible exception being how quick Cole and Carson (Julian Black-Antelope; Hold the Dark, Knuckleball) are to believe that spirits are involved. But how different is that from the character who believes Satan is responsible the moment something bad happens in films based on Christianity?

Don’t Say Its Name makes excellent use of the snowy Alberta woods to create a picturesque backdrop to the bloodletting. The effects are mostly simple but effective. Torn out throats, disembowelments, etc. They’re bloody enough to satisfy genre fans, but not explicit enough to turn off more casual viewers. The cause of it all is depicted with a mix of CGI and an actor in makeup depending on the scene. Again nothing too intricate, but still effective.

Despite a couple of cliches such as the lead who’s a single mother and the service member with PTSD, Don’t Say Its Name manages to be something a bit different. Not to the point where viewers will be confused by what’s going on, but enough to differentiate itself from similar films. Most importantly though, Don’t Say Its Name is a fun piece of supernatural horror.

***½ 3.5/5

Don’t Say Its Name screens as part of this years Fantasia Film Festival.

Review originally posted on Voices From the Balcony.

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