[Fantasia Review] Supernatural Indigenous Film ‘Don’t Say Its Name’ Is Topical, But Struggles With Its Scares

Horror

Rueben Martell’s Don’t Say Its Name opens with a hit and run. Kharis (Sheena Kaine), a young Indigenous woman, is walking on a back road when she’s struck and killed. Her assailant isn’t seen, but her death has immediate ramifications that extend far beyond her grieving mother Mary Lynne (Carla Fox); it winds up affecting the whole community in unexpected and deadly ways.

The film, which was shot in Alberta, is the latest in a burgeoning slate of Indigenous horror films (many of them hailing from Canada, which has a well-documented genocidal history with its First Nations peoples). Martell, who is Indigenous, is clearly working with a smaller budget than Jeff Barnaby, whose Blood Quantum rocked the zombie genre a few years ago, but Don’t Say Its Name is just as interested in contemporary Indigenous issues as Barnaby’s film.

The unnamed community in which the film takes place is the site of a hotly contested new development. Mining company WEC is preparing for a major project that will bring jobs and money to the community, but it also has potentially devastating environmental implications, in addition to bringing in unfamiliar and disrespectful outsiders. This is evident in an early interaction between WEC employee Donny (Tom Carey) and Park Ranger Stacey (Sera-Lys McArthur): he blocks her vehicle in so that he can feed her borderline racist pick-up lines and she punches him in the nose. 

As the town grieves for Kharis, it is the WEC employees who come under threat from a malevolent force that begins to murder them (depicted in birdseye, point of view shots). It is telling that only the WEC are threatened; an early victim’s fiancé, who has accompanied her out on a survey job, is left shaken but unharmed. 

This first sequence establishes a narrative and visual pattern that continues throughout the film: a new character is introduced, then immediately dispatched by the unseen assailant in a bloody attack. But what starts off as a novelty quickly becomes tiring because the victims are not characters; they exist solely to be introduced and then murdered, which means no stakes, no character development, and, sadly, few deviations from this formula.

That’s partially by design. Martell, who co-wrote the film with Gerald Wexler, is far less interested in his one-dimensional white characters than he is in his strong female leads. In addition to gruff, no-nonsense Stacey, the film is anchored by local peace officer Betty (Madison Walsh), who investigates the crimes while also attempting to mediate between a number of dueling parties’ interests. Making a pair of Indigenous women the protagonists and seeing them work together, despite the characters’ different vantage points, is both exciting and refreshing. It’s made all the more enjoyable because Walsh and McArthur also have great chemistry together.

The issue is that the further the film progresses, the less interesting its vengeful spirit becomes. When the film is exploring issues of Indigenous sovereignty, economic disparity, trauma, and the legacy of murdered Indigenous women, Don’t Say Its Name is engaging in timely, topical discussions. 

That messaging becomes confused in the last act, however, when the spirit begins to turn against anyone even remotely connected to WEC, including Indigenous citizens. The finale, which brings Betty’s nephew Ben (Samuel Marty) from the margins of the story to the center, is certainly exciting and FX heavy, but the fairly standard horror climax comes at the cost of the film’s more interesting and relevant political and social commentary. As a result, it is unclear what message Martell and Wexler intend for viewers to take away.

For audiences interested in Indigenous affairs, there’s enough here to justify a watch, particularly thanks to its compelling lead performances. For viewers who are simply looking for a spectral haunting film, the increasingly rote death sequences and spotty pacing will be an issue. For a first time writer/director, there’s plenty of promise here, but overall Don’t Say Its Name is only halfway successful. 

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