I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
Horror movies have long shown us what we fear. The best ones deliver a one-two punch, serving terror that also highlight the anxieties that are below the surface of our cultural norms. Many of those horrors broke beyond the barriers in recent years. These fears, sustained by fake news and a web littered with conspiracy theories, have formed our modern political climate to a level never thought possible. And it’s films like Jordan Peele’s GET OUT and US that have held up a mirror to our society and given us a glimpse of what has been boiling in the cultural pot for some time.
Emma Tammi’s feature directorial debut THE WIND also breathes this very air. It’s a supernatural horror film set in the late 1800s about a plainswoman named Lizzy Macklin (a sensational Caitlin Gerard) who lives with her husband (Ashley Zukerman) in an isolated cabin. Lizzy’s husband is gone for weeks at a time, leaving Lizzy to battle against prairie madness and the effects of a failed pregnancy. It explores the other side of the coin in Western films where husbands go off to fight in wars or carry out frontier missions. It’s rare to see a movie that shows the virtual wars mothers and wives fight in the places they call home. It’s a scary sight, and Tammi expertly delves into these terrors like slipping into a warm bloodbath.
THE WIND successfully fuels the idea that horror films chose to forgo metaphorical and allegorical examination in favor of a more direct route, such as a biopic. Pointing out our extremism, beliefs, and conspiracies is scary as hell, and Tammi’s film is enlightening in a fashion that is wise beyond a first-time feature director.
“There has been such a remarkable history of filmmakers making their first, or first few, films in the horror genre. It’s such a great playground to explore different film techniques,” Tammi said by phone. “I think both with horror and sci-fi you can get to themes that are at the very core of our humanity. They are often more easily explored because they’re not as tied to reality, yet, somehow, they get to the reality of the situation so deeply.”
Tammi said she felt the story, written for the screen by Teresa Sutherland and based on real accounts of women during the era, was compelling to take to the horror genre because of the extremity of isolation, the loneliness of Lizzy’s character, and the overall fear of the situation.
“Fear was so exacerbated that it goes into supernatural, frightening and completely horrific realms. I think for Lizzy, she probably would have felt as extreme as everything feels to us as an audience watching a horror film versus a straight biopic. So, I thought it was great to push the story into that space. To approach it from a genre angle was so fresh and exciting to me,” Tammi said.
To make the horror exciting for audiences, it took giving the film a deliberate pace. Much of the horror unfolds similarly to THE VVITCH or ROSEMARY’S BABY, where you get small doses. It’s more about immersing you into the world of the story and ratcheting up that fear to the point of explosion.
“I wanted to start this film off like a Western. I wanted to let the audience feel like they’re a part of this world. At the same time, it is a horror film, and you don’t want to lose those elements,” Tammi said. “[The horror pieces] are embedded in there, but they are much subtler at the beginning of the film.”
From a tonal perspective, THE SHINING was an essential reference for Tammi when constructing the film. Audiences can watch the film one time and try to work it out, but in repeat viewings, you may gather different ideas and feelings. Tammi explained how Stanley Kubrick took his time to build the world and let the characters languish in it before that world began to turn them.
“[Sutherland] and I were trying to do that in a way that didn’t lose audiences and kept them engaged. We chose a long opening shot, and I think that shot is two minutes longer than our first assembly. So, you have to push it all the way and then pull it back to find that sweet spot. The pace still feels like it’s moving towards something, but it deliberately taking its time,” Tammi said.
To find the horror in the scenes, Tammi put all her focus into Lizzy’s emotional arc. Certain images come across the screen that causes the audience to question whether what we see is real or not, much like Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND. Is the central character crazy, or is there some evil entity that is trying to get her?
“Lizzy constantly questions herself throughout the entirety of the film. We wanted the audience to share that experience, where they’d also question what’s going on and what they believe,” Tammi said. “It was key to try to get into the point of view of Lizzy as much as possible. I think walking that line between what’s real and what’s not is what we were aiming for.”
While blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, it’s critical not to be so ambiguous that audiences lose all desire to explore the film and its themes further on their own. THE WIND is a film that offers as many questions as it does answers. It’s not clean cut. The wounds are open, but we don’t know where it came from exactly.
“You have to throw enough down that it’s not confusing in a distracting way. You don’t want the ambiguity to distract from the characters’ emotional arcs. I think that was our guiding compass throughout the process of making the film — tracking [the characters’ emotional arcs] and letting the logic be more ambiguous in moments.”
Tammi’s film is a smart, nuanced and frightful examination of solitude. It navigates the tricky waters of its story with class and never allows its uncertainties to drive us mad. There’s enough groundwork to keep us locked into its frequency and enough creeps to make us sweat. So, naturally, I’m a fan of THE WIND.
IFC Midnight will release THE WIND in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, April 5.