On a snowy forest road in Canada, Kharis (Sheena Kaine) – a young indigenous woman – is fatally struck down by a car. While her community mourns, a supernatural force appears to start killing off visitors and locals alike. Police officer Betty (Madison Walsh) and PTSD-afflicted veteran Stacey (Sera-Lys McArthur) team to investigate, but soon find themselves in over their heads.
Indigenous Canadian Rueben Martell marks his feature directorial debut with Don’t Say Its Name, a horror film invested in First Nations traditions, culture, and political concerns. The more mundane elements of the film are dominated by a large mining company moving into the area, with promises of jobs and funding for local communities but with a catastrophic effect on the land. It is a solid real world grounding for Martell’s film that feels both timely and relevant.
Martell also excels in developing his lead characters. It is nice to see two strong, pro-active women at the centre of his film: one a no-nonsense police officer balancing work with family, and the other a hair-trigger temper park ranger with a background in the armed forces. Betty and Stacey have well-balanced personalities, and both Madison Walsh and Sera-Lys McArthur do a great job wringing every ounce of chemistry out of their relationship.
Less successful are the supernatural elements – usually the draw card of a horror film. A series of repetitive scenes depict characters being introduced for the first time, and then being spontaneously killed by some bloodthirsty invisible force. The first incident works reasonably well, but it is repeated multiple times with weakening results. It is difficult to become too invested in a character’s death when the audience has only just met them. It’s every more difficult when it happens again and again.
The film partially rights itself in its second half, and the nature and origins of the phantom killer become clear. The film’s visual effects are inventively designed, particularly given a visibly limited production budget. A few moments of shock and tension work particularly well. The climax, however, feels somewhat formulaic and predictable. Betty and Stacey’s partnership elevates the material to some degree, but arguably not quite enough of a degree for Don’t Say Its Name to fully succeed.
It is, all told, a somewhat odd film. First and foremost it is wonderful to see Indigenous horror made by Indigenous filmmakers. It also is a promising first feature for Martell, but is unlikely to find repeat viewers. The central horror elements are the weakest aspect of the film, and while its political engagement, characterisation, and performances are all excellent the film does ultimately struggle in the one place horror features really count. It is a film worth watching, but perhaps not one worth rushing to watch.
Don’t Say Its Name screened at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.