One of the most annoying things to me about most critiques of any artistic work is when critics who have no experience in the field (or, honestly, even if they DO have a lot of experience) shit on the creative outputs of anyone who is actually trying. That said, please keep in mind as we talk about Black Lake that I am a writer and not a film-maker, so that’s where my frame of reference is...
...I focus on storytelling because we tell ourselves stories to make meaning of our lives, and when there is no story, to me, nothing means anything.
Black Lake begins when an English-Pakinstani artist (director K/XI) takes a retreat to the Scottish Highlands. Their auntie (Aditi Bajpai) sends them a beautiful red scarf—a souvenir from her own trip to Pakistan—that turns out to be cursed by its original owner, a murder/rape victim.
As in any Iowa-styled writing workshop, I want to begin with what’s working in this film: it will come as no surprise to anyone who has viewed this film that director K/XI won the “Best Cinematography” Lizzie Award at the Women in Horror Film Festival: the high-definition images and movement of a scarf through water over the naked bodies of women are certainly compelling.
Still, when the montage of these picturesque images does not convey a narrative or an emotion… it’s not really a montage anymore. It’s more of a beautiful screensaver that lets my mind wander onto other things. To be fair, I’ve thought the same thing of other very popular films, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon, which to me felt like an extended video advertisement that would fit perfectly in a fashion magazine.
That may seem harsh, and perhaps it is, but I found myself wondering 20 minutes into the film if there WOULD be a plot. In fact, when K/XI answered questions at the end and cited Neon Demon as a big inspiration for the film, I felt a huge wave of vindication: I wasn’t just being bitchy. This movie was just NOT GEARED toward a person like me who craves character-driven, dynamic psychological terror. It’s MEANT for lovers of the frame, of cinematography. It very much feels like a filmmaker’s film, and after the director said that’s what they were going for, I felt pretty vindicated. (Case in point: many people love Evil Dead 2 because of its style. I hate it because it has no convention or narrative or plot or consistent characterization. Also, the acting is… cartoony? Which, if that’s what you love, you’ll love it. As Leslie Knope says, “One man’s trash is another’s total package.”)
I guess we’ve already moved into the what’s-not-working section of this workshop structure: after hearing K/XI explain the many setbacks and restarts in production, I definitely DO admire the tenacity. And yet...
Another pet peeve of mine is having to look for the artist and their interviews to figure out what something means. That’s like going to a museum and needing the artist to stand right beside the work and explain what they did with the lighting. If the viewers have to do that, the piece isn’t finished yet, because it should stand alone. That’s the whole point.
Of course, I DID learn a lot from the post-film Q&A, for example, that the images of the scarf were based on the director’s fascination with cursed objects, or—and this to me is the real missed opportunity—the bit of folklore about the Chudail. I learned after the film that in Pakistan (and perhaps other areas, but Pakistan was where this film’s backstory takes place) there’s a folkloric belief that after a violent crime against women, a spirit or witch is born out of vengeance. That’s a dope concept. I can get behind that for REAL.
I wish that I had learned about it sooner.
To top off my shit sandwich, I’ll leave you with this conclusion: what S.A. Bradley, the moderator of the Q&A, said about the feature being “expressionistic but deeply personal” is exactly right. It makes sense to create an expressionistic piece about what the director called a “cycle of violence,” and if you are a viewer who wants that type of film, Black Lake will be exactly what you love.
By Mary Kay McBrayer