Never forget who you are…
…One of the worst things (among many) that white people have done over the centuries is to attempt to destroy the culture of others. Whether it’s to steal it, dilute it, or flat out suffocate it, white men (and women) have a long history of stepping on others and taking what they want, including from Indigenous Americans. In director Rueben Martell’s debut feature Don’t Say Its Name, which just premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival, something or someone decides its had enough of this and wants blood in return.
As one character says, “sometimes poachers need to be poached,” and Don’t Say Its Name is all about vengeance towards whites poaching from the minority class.
Written by Martell and Gerald Wexler, Don’t Say Its Name follows Officer Betty (Madison Walsh) and newly deputized, ex-military vet Stacey (Sera-Lys McArthur) as they investigate murders happening on their reservation. Sparked by a mining company in town promising wealth while destroying the land, the murders are vicious and grisly, with witnesses left in shock and describing the killer as invisible. Is it a person behind the murders, or is it a native legend at work?
Before a second of Don’t Say Its Name has rolled, it’s already a fresh entry in horror because it does something incredibly value that I’m not sure us white Americans appreciate enough: it offers a different perspective. If I asked you to name the number of horror films you have seen from Indigenous people about indigenous people, I’m guessing that list might be pretty small, and that’s a travesty. There is a wealth of untapped stories out there, and its why representation matters, because we all benefit. Some from getting to see themselves on screen the way they should be able to, and others from experiencing wonders and horror from other cultures they may not be familiar with.
The greatest achievement of Don’t Say Its Name is that it takes us deep into the culture of Betty and her people, exploring the values and togetherness within the community, and the devastation that comes with an entity like the WEC Company threatening to tear them apart and take what is left. Both Betty and Stacey, each with moving performances from Walsh and McArthur, are women who take great pride in who they are and want the best for those around them. Betty constantly pushes her nephew Ben (Samuel Marty) to be his greatest self and prove he is worthy of respect, while Stacey is more or less a raging chainsaw cutting through the bullshit of white men, brought to life by a fiercely badass, intense performance from McArthur.
It’s rare that we get team-ups of lady cops in horror—another major plus for Don’t Say Its Name—and seeing these two women support each other in the face of sexist WEC rep Donny (Tom Carey) or racially ignorant cop Andy (Justin Lewis) is a true and utter joy. Through them, we get a feel for the politics of the town and the importance of leaders such as town elder, Carson (Julian Black Antelope), as well as the way in which alcoholism and debt has ravaged the community and caused some to lose their way. Between them, there is a great deal of heart beating within Don’t Say Its Name’s bones.
If only it were all more fleshed out.
Don’t Say Its Name is Martell’s debut feature, and that shows itself much more often than the film’s killer.
Don’t Say Its Name starts eerily enough on the film’s first victim strolling down a dark, lonely road on a winter night, but struggles to recapture that atmosphere throughout. Part of the problem is Martell’s melodramatic approach. Whether it’s the cringe-worthy non-diagetic sounds of guns firing and people screaming as Stacey does some target practice, or scenes of examining dead bodies coupled with a melodramatic score from Beau Shiminsky, Don’t Say Its Name is rarely more menacing than an episode of CSI and as unintentionally humorous as well. Martell seems to take quite a few cues from that show though in terms of structure, so that’s not surprising.
Kill scenes are quick and ferocious, with some grisly gore that gorehounds will appreciate, but these moments as well are undercut by ill-timed direction, much too bright lighting, and unfortunate digital effects on the level of something you’d see in an Asylum picture. And I’m not knocking those movies, they’re a blast, but Don’t Say Its Name isn’t meant to be silly, it wants to scare you, yet can’t get off the struggle bus long enough to do so. Throw in head scratching dialogue like Andy seriously suggesting they “need to get a team of psychologists down here” to deal with what he thinks is mass hysteria and some robotic delivery from other cast members, and Don’t Say Its Name is like The Terminator attempting to smile. You want to appreciate it, but there’s something mechanical and off about it.
Perhaps what’s most disappointing is the lack of lore surrounding what’s really going on in Don’t Say Its Name. A killer that’s invisible ala Predator and is slashing bodies like Freddy does to Tina in A Nightmare on Elm Street sounds cool, but with each underwhelming reveal, Don’t Say Its Name quiets its own thunder. Much of that is thanks to poor execution that has a hard time conveying the legend mentioned by Carson and others beyond a vague idea. Instead of a fully fleshed villain, we get some rotten flesh hanging off of bones.
Don’t Say Its Name is a classic case of an interesting premise with meandering pacing and a lackluster presentation. This film is as stiff as a corpse and as clunky as rusted machinery missing a few screws, made to work at all only by a few interesting characters. Nevertheless, it’s important that we have more films featuring a cast/crew of indigenous people, especially one such as this which offers a vital commentary on culture and the importance of knowing where you come from, and in that regard, Don’t Say Its Name is an achievement that Martell and all involved deserve to be proud of.
By Matt Konopka