The Cine-Excess International Film Festival: Black Lake – a review

The Cine-Excess International Film Festival:

Black Lake

words by Ellis Reed

Founded by Xavier Mendik, Cine-Excess is a unique event that brings fans and academics together for a celebration of cult cinema. This year, the format was a conference called Representations as Weapons: Cult Film and the Politics of Resistance, with screenings of films like Gags the Clown and Skin Walker. We took the opportunity to watch two British features at the festival, and one of them was Black Lake by K / XI.

Rooted in South Asian folklore, the film was partly influenced by the Jyoti Singh case and draws on the legend of the “churail”, or vengeful female spirit. In the opening scenes, a British-Asian artist called Aarya arrives at a remote house in the Scottish highlands. While she’s there, she receives a red scarf from her aunt in Pakistan—but the gift has a tragic back-story, and a churail soon follows.

K / XI discussed the genesis of the film in a virtual Q&A. “I realised this is really just a story about violence against women,” she explained. “A woman is said to become a ‘churail’ if she’s raped and murdered, if she dies during childbirth… she then manifests as this demonic form and comes back to kill and hurt other people. So I thought, this really isn’t your typical monster movie…”

Despite a couple of rough edges, the result is a compelling piece of cinema, distinguished by stunning visuals and layered themes. The shots of Scotland and Pakistan are first-rate. The whole first act, focussed on the discovery of the cottage, has a very strong sense of subjective experience. When Aarya puts her feet on a rug or eats a bowl of cereal, the camera lingers, letting us share her sensory journey. “When you enter a place like that, you’re going to take it in,” K explained. “That’s what I wanted to convey. Just enjoying the elements. The warmth, the earth… it’s all about texture.” Aarya’s clothes were even chosen to give a strong sense of their softness. By the same token, when the scarf arrives, it triggers a process of tactile discovery. Aarya touches it, gazes through it, smells the fabric—even dances round the room with it.

In the Q&A, K acknowledged that this might all seem a bit “slow”, but her instinct as a filmmaker was bang-on. The mood established by the opening is a key strength of the film and sets up a powerful shift in tone, taking us from small concrete pleasures to big and bewildering acts of violence. In storytelling terms, the start of the film is as simple as it gets, but the arrival of the churail marks the end of narrative certainty. Later, an alarming phone call is made in the night and then forgotten. A seductress turns into a brutal attacker. The provenance of the scarf, the difference between dreams and reality, and even our sense of place become increasingly hazy.

As a horror, the film has some memorable and unsettling images. Blood, wet footsteps, long black hair and implied violence are all used to fine effect. The score by Burning Tapes deserves a special mention and has been released as an album.

In terms of rough edges, dialogue takes place over the phone, and the audio (and probably editing) are a little uneven for these scenes. When it comes to understanding the nature of the threat, some important lines are said in a hurry and could be missed. The movie is most powerful when it comes to “storytelling without words”, and the scenes with dialogue aren’t quite as strong—possibly due to the challenge of filming two halves of a conversation separately. Also, fans who like their horror to be explained in full will be alienated by the final act, but that’s a matter of taste rather than quality. Viewed another way, any lingering questions (which are probably inevitable here) make great discussion points for a group.

Overall, Black Lake is a challenging and beautiful film with exceptional cinematography and haunting images. K / XI is a rare example of a “quadruple threat”, insofar as she not only wrote, produced and directed but also (after an abortive shoot with a different crew) decided to star as well. Based on the Q&A, she’s done a great job of bringing her vision to the screen, and the film’s strengths align perfectly with her intent. If it gets a wider release, definitely seek it out and see what you think!

Picture of Ellis Reed

Ellis Reed

To pass the time during lockdown, I decided to write some English ghost stories, which you can read for free on my blog.

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