Don’t Say Its Name opens on one of horror’s most classic settings, an isolated country road on a dark and snow-stormy night. A young woman walks alone, trying to call her mother to come pick her up before the poor cellular connection cuts out entirely. Before she has a chance to redial, she’s purposefully run down by a truck, the hit and run accident discovered the next day along with her body.
The victim’s name was Kharis Redwater (Sheena Kaine) a Native activist who had just recently returned to the reservation after an (implied to be troubled) stint living in a larger city. Reconnecting with her home and her heritage, she fiercely opposed a recent agreement that would let the W.E.C. mining conglomerate set up shop on tribal land. The night she died, she had been on her way back from a contentious council meeting on that same subject.
A few days later, one of the corporation’s surveyors also turns up dead, in what looks like a violent animal attack, but one that mysteriously left her companion unharmed. Needing more resources than her department is allocated, tribal police detective Betty Stonechild (Madison Walsh) is forced to call in Andy(Justin Lewis) an officer from the closest small town P.D. outside the reservation.
The bodies continue to pile up, and Andy begins to threaten to close the case as nothing more than violent mass hysteria. Betty, recognizing the racist indifference posed by the outsider, emergency deputizes forest ranger Stacey Cole (Sera-Lys McArthur). A military veteran and expert wilderness tracker, Stacey is Betty’s best chance at finding the mysterious killer, be it human, or otherwise.
The plot is very simple, and genre fans will likely be able to clock Don’t Say Its Name‘s major events fairly early on. Just in case you miss the signposts, almost a half hour of an 82 minute runtime is spent basically repeating the same story beat. Characters with obvious ties to W.E.C. are introduced as slasher style cannon fodder, and killed almost immediately. The logical human possibilities grow ever slimmer, the outsiders stubbornly clinging to procedure. Meanwhile the locals already know something older and more dangerous is likely at play. Something they know to respect, even if they are not necessarily ready to admit there might be some truth to the darker corners of the traditional folklore they grew up hearing.
Director/co writer Rueben Martell creates some solid atmosphere in Don’t Say Its Name, the snow covered forests of rural Canada full of whistling wind and shadowy corners. The sparse population, remote location and icy weather marks the area as both brutal and beautiful.
The introduction of the wendigo like entity (true to the title, the supernatural creature is never named, but the mythology matches up for that being the reference, as does the racist cop’s assertion of a suspicious, likely fake related group psychosis), is handled well for what is obviously a low budget movie, with birds circling overhead, characters smelling odd decay, and brief POV cuts to what looks like an animal’s vantage point.
Sera-Lys McArthur and Madison Walsh have great chemistry, when the script finally lets them do their job rather than standing about in bafflement. Sure, each of them has some generic “strong woman” qualities (Betty is raising her nephew on her own, Stacey is a military veteran implied to have PTSD from her sacrifices in the service) but their mutual understanding and respect reads as genuine, even if they occupy somewhat oppositional positions in terms of their personal methodologies and philosophy.
Don’t Say Its Name is anchored by First Nations creators and performers in key roles, so the more social critique leaning aspects of film ring truer than most of its more traditionally genre focused moments. The way that the people living on the reservation are both exoticized and treated as second class citizens is highlighted in even the pedestrian encounters with the outsiders that the crime and the corporation brings. The fact that members of the community are not a monolith unified in their opinions on the cost versus benefits math of the mining expedition is also refreshing to see. These perspectives are usually not considered in terms of eco and folk horror. Both subgenres tend to take the lens of old traditions versus modernization, without factoring in the scars of colonization that also prompt those structural changes.
Unfortunately, the concise runtime cuts the space available for topical critique and character development as the film still needs time to introduce the folkloric monster the characters are cautiously NOT speaking of. Wendigo are generally depicted as gaunt monsters of endless appetite, death and decay in an insatiable bag of bones. Leaving the creature unseen made sense for the sake of the special effects budget, and wasn’t an awful way to communicate the spectral entity’s predatory nature to use more point of view style shots.
Yet as Don’t Say Its Name progresses, the spirit’s goals and attributes become more scattershot, attacking locals and W.E.C. supporters with equal faculty. Initially invisible, the spirit becomes a goofy jump scare producing hybrid of a zombie and a ghost that is intangible or corporeal only as suits the needs of the plot at any given moment.
Too serious to play as spooky camp silliness, but too silly in its monster moments to truly be scary, Don’t Say Its Name doesn’t do enough to utilize the underrepresented perspective of its characters, lesser known central monster or the confines of its wintery setting. Despite its lead performers’ best efforts, Don’t Say Its Name‘s thin script doesn’t have enough to say to make an initially promising, social commentary filled concept as memorable as it should be.
WICKED RATING: 4.5/10
Director: Rueben Martell
Writers: Rueben Martell, Gerald Wexler
Stars: Madison Walsh, Sera-Lys McArthur, Julian Black Antelope
Release date: August 11th, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Chaos, A Film Company
Run Time: 82 minutes