A Journal Of The Dark Arts
K/XI’s feature-length debut about a South Asian folktale is a gorgeous, poetic, atmospheric allegory of trauma and revenge.
Horror movies have a tendency to tip their hand, letting you know what they are long before the blood begins to flow. Horror movies often begin with some form of transgression, a breaking of some form of taboo – the presence of blood, a hint of the macabre, the lingering shadow of death. Most horror movies are about as subtle as a truck crash, you can see it coming from 2 miles away. The stabbing strings, the crashing thuds, the macabre visuals almost contradictorily serve to soften the blow, as yr able to steel yrself against the coming atrocities.
Not so with Blake Lake, the debut feature film from K/XI. There’s not a drop of blood spilled until at least halfway through Black Lake‘s runtime; its almost quiet/slow cinema until Aarya, a Pakistani painter on holiday (played by K/XI herself), begins to break down in the wake of some eerie, unsettling happenings.
Aarya (K/XI) needs a break from city life to focus on her painting. Her Aunt, Auntie Ayaneh (Aditi Bajpai) obliges Aarya by lending her a vacation house in the countryside. Auntie Ayaneh sends Aarya a housewarming gift of a red scarf she got from a small village in Pakistan on a recent trip.
It doesn’t take long for the supernatural events to begin to unfurl. That night, Aarya falls asleep in the bathtub and has a dream about a young woman wrapped in the red scarf on the banks of a lake. It’s unclear what’s causing them, however, giving an uncanny air of uncertainty that pervades much of the movie.
It turns out there’s more to the scarf than either woman had first thought. After receiving a phone call from Auntie Ayaneh (or did she?), Aarya discovers the scarf may have belonged to a young woman who met a tragic end in the small village in Pakistan.
In Pakistani folklore, there is a story about the churail, a particular type of South Asian witch who is created when a woman meets an untimely end. She is usually depicted as having long, stringy black hair, similar to the Japanese onryō, and backwards feet. Turns out this churail is haunting Aarya, who proceeds to slip further and further away from reality.
It all comes to a head in a poetically, visually beautiful climax that will haunt you for days.
Black Lake is a moving, evocative, beautiful horror movie that is more arthouse than grindhouse. As i said in the intro, most horror movies will break their first taboo in the first 30 seconds, letting you know yr in danger, that yr about to be in the presence of death.
Not so with Black Lake. In fact, this slow boil of an atmospheric horror film spends more time watching its protagonist drink coffee and eat cereal than it does focusing on bloodshed and murder. There’s nary a drop of red, red kroovy until practically the halfway point. Instead, it merely observes the daily rituals of a young artist on vacation. The pacing is such that you feel yr on vacation, spending long hours staring out the window, cooking meals, taking a bath. It makes the supernatural happenings that much more unnerving, that much more unsettling, when they begin. Something as simple as a hair in a bowl of rice becomes more rattling than a dozen mallet blows to the skull.
With its hip, modern soundtrack, (with a horrorsynth score by Burning Witches Records co-owner Darren Page under his BurningTapes moniker), Black Lake is clearly in league with a modern movement of stylish, artful horror movies, a la It Follows. One common criticism of this new breed of horror is that these movies too often emphasize style over substance. With Black Lake, on the other hand, style and substance are in complete harmony, complimenting one another and playing to their strengths. K/XI takes what she needs from arthouse and experimental films, psychological horror, even ghost stories to tell her tale of anger and vengeance from beyond the grave.
Black Lake does not pander. It does not console. The open-ended, somewhat poetic nature of the narrative, combined with the exquisite beauty of the visuals and music, leaves the movie lingering in your mind long after the credits have rolled.
Compelled, intrigued, i couldn’t leave it alone, needing to wrap my head around what i’d just watched. And i’m so, so thankful i did, as there’s so much more going on behind the camera than you might guess at first glance.
Black Lake was inspired by a true story, a tragedy that occurred in 2012 in Pakistan. K/XI got the first inkling for the movie after hearing the story of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old student who was gang-raped and tortured on a bus in South Delhi. Due to local custom, in Pakistan it’s often customary to leave the names of victims unspoken. In this case, some of the men responsible for this heinous crime got to speak on television. People were quite literally given the men’s side of the story, while this poor girl was left forgotten and silent.
With Black Lake, and the legend of the churail, women are given power, agency. And yet, K/XI wanted to make much more than simply a rape revenge film, of which there are already plenty. Instead, she uses the myth of the churail and the tragedy of Jyoti Singh, to examine trauma and cycles of violence. It makes the film much more powerful and psychologically moving.
That’s not even the end of the story. Most of Black Lake was initially shot in Pakistan. In post-production, however, it quickly became evident the footage they had wasn’t going to work. They began again, shooting at an Air BNB. They still needed some shots from Pakistan for cutaways, though, and for flashbacks about the haunted scarf. A lesser filmmaker would’ve relied on artifice and stock footage. K/XI, on the other hand, booked a flight to Pakistan to shoot some b-roll and find a young girl to play the churail.
The problem is that it’s not really safe for women to be doing such things in Pakistan. K/XI literally put her life on the line to get these shots. In a behind-the-scenes interview, she tells crazy stories about Pakistani officials robbing her actresses once they’d finished shooting. So don’t let the calm, still surface of Black Lake fool you. There is blood and heart and guts in this film-making. I, for one, cannot wait to see what K/XI and Bad Wolf Films get into next!
Black Lake is showing as part of the Salem Horror Festival.
The Salem Horror Festival is entirely virtual this year, due to the Coronavirus, which is actually great news for those of us who don’t live in Massachusetts. You can purchase tickets for individual films as well as weekend passes. The first weekend has already passed but you can also get tickets for an encore performance, giving you access to 36 films and extras that have already premiered. Finally, you can get a full pass that gives you access to everything. You get the movies for two weeks and access to the extras until SEPTEMBER of NEXT YEAR!
Welcome to 31 Days Of Horror! Each day this month, i’ll be reviewing and recommending horror movies, in addition to other media, art, and culture relating to the Horror genre. Make sure to check back as this site’s about to run red with more delicious horror madness than you could shake a stake at.
We’ve got a pretty stacked queue already, but am always open to suggestions, recommendations, and just knowing what y’all would like to see on this site. And what are y’all watching, reading, and listening to, this Season of the Witch?
Also, follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Letterboxd, for even more horror aesthetics and inspiration. Every day is Halloween here in the Forestpunk turret, so we’re looking forward to unleashing our plague of madness and wonders on the world. Happy October!