Every once in a while a film comes along that doesn’t conform to the expectations of its designated genre. A case in point is Emma Tammi’s debut feature The Wind (2018) from a screenplay by Teresa Sutherland that is being positioned as a horror film by its distributor IFC Midnight at selected theaters across the U.S. and streaming services after a critically acclaimed run on the film festival circuit. Yes, The Wind has the necessary ingredients to attract horror film fans such as ghosts, demonology and unexplained phenomena. But the film could also be described as a psychological thriller from a feminist perspective or even a period western in which an inhospitable landscape becomes a central character.
A grim, foreboding tone is established from the opening scene as we transition from a black screen and the sound of the wind to a frontier cabin with two men outside. Framed inside the doorway is a woman in a blood-drenched dress. The woman is Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard), the wife of a prairie farmer, and the non-linear narrative drifts back and forth between events that led up to this disturbing sight but also depict the increasingly sinister occurrences that plague Lizzy from this point on. Among them are the arrival of new neighbors – a married couple (Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee), who seem shy and awkward at first and then deeply troubled. There is also an unexpected visit from a traveling minister (Miles Anderson) who gives Lizzy a bible with a pamphlet on demons of the prairie hidden within its pages. (In a clever marketing ploy, the film distributor provided some theaters with an abbreviated version of this pamphlet as a collectible).
Some film reviewers have noted similarities between Tammi’s film and the 1928 silent film The Wind directed by Victor Sjostrom and starring Lillian Gish. For one thing, both movies feature female protagonists who are thrust into a harsh and isolated setting and end up resorting to violence to exorcise their demons. It is also unusual to see films in which not just the physical hardships of frontier life are shown but also the psychological stress that these pioneer women had to endure. And in both films, it is enough to drive them to the brink of madness.
In the role of Lizzy, Caitlin Gerard has to carry the entire film on her shoulders – she’s in practically every scene – but her performance helps ground the viewer in her reality. At first she seems self-sufficient, practical and she knows how to use a gun. (The scenes of her holding a rifle against her pregnant body is as potent an image as Mia Farrow rocking a cradle with a butcher knife in Rosemary’s Baby.)
But once her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukeman) leaves her alone while he travels to a distant town for supplies, Lizzy’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic due to things she sees and hears. Or is it all in her mind?
The Wind plays mind games with the viewers in this regard and at times the movie seems like a throwback to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and other horror films of the ‘60s and ‘70s where the heroine could be delusional but how can you tell when you are seeing the same apparitions and shape-shifters she sees?
I appreciate the fact that the filmmaker does not tie everything together for audiences at the end and is deliberately ambiguous about Lizzy’s fate. As a result, The Wind is likely to stay in your head for days, haunting you with its mysteries.
But is it truly frightening? I suspect that hardcore horror film fans will be disappointed if they are expecting something more violent and fast-paced. Nonetheless, the movie works as an unsettling mood piece and is most effective when it doesn’t try to amp up the tension with shock cuts or ghoulish special effects. The nighttime sequence where Lizzy repeatedly opens the cabin door to investigate the insistent knocking and finds no one there is much creepier than seeing her dragged across the floor backwards and suspended in air by some poltergeist, an effect that has already become a cliché in modern horror films.
One of The Wind’s major strength’s is the stripped down visual aesthetic of the film – the simple, sparse sets which seem authentic for the period and the vast prairie setting (It was filmed in New Mexico). The minimalist but eerie music score by Atlanta-based composer is Ben Lovett is appropriately atmospheric and so is the rich sound design which blends omnipresent wind sounds with creaking floorboards, rustling leaves, footsteps and other ordinary noises that suddenly take on an ominous quality.
The Wind is an impressive first feature for Ms. Tammi and I hope we’ll be seeing more from her in the near future. If you missed The Wind in its theatrical run, you can now stream it on VOD platforms like Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
Other websites of interest: