Horror, traditionally, is a stepping-stone genre. It’s the thing you make when you’re starting out and have no money or leverage. Your dollar can go very far on a horror movie set, and when filming is wrapped and you’re looking for distribution you’ll have a heck of an easier time finding a market than you will if you’ve made some relationship drama filmed in a friend’s apartment. Once you find your audience, maybe you’ll get to make another horror movie for more money, but you better move on to something more prestigious fast lest you want to get typecast as the horror guy.
That career trajectory doesn’t apply as much as it used to. (For one thing, the stigma of sticking with horror movies isn’t quite prevalent as it used to be.) Still, this playbook has been followed by countless men over the years. Few women have gotten that chance. It makes sense, of course. There are significantly more men directing movies than there are women, ergo the industry-wide trend inevitably repeats itself in horror. Historically, your Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark), Amy Holden Jones (Slumber Party Massacre), and Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary 1 & 2) types don’t get much of a chance to keep working in the genre or in any genre, really. Bigelow climbed the ladder to a Best Director Oscar, and even she still has to scrape for budgets for each new film.
Things are getting better. Just in the past 5 years, Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale), Julia Ducournau (Raw), Sophia Takai (Always Shine, New Year, New You, the upcoming Black Christmas remake), and Chelsea Stardust (Satanic Panic, All That We Destroy) have broken horror’s glass ceiling in a big way. The result has been a lot of interesting new takes on old tropes, like writer-director Emma Tammi’s feminist horror-western The Wind (2019).
What’s It About?
Lizzy and Isaac (Caitlin Gerard, Ashley Zukerman) – a homesteading couple in the late 1800s Western frontier – attempt to make nice with their first and thus far only neighbors, a couple (Julia Goldani Telles, Dylan McTee) who built a cabin just up the hill from them. However, when tragedy strikes Lizzy ends up isolated and driven mad by the supernatural forces using the wind to beat down her door. Or, ya know, she just loses her mind and the wind is just the wind. Or, hold on, that’s exactly what the film wants us to think and there really is something to her rantings about “demons of the prairie” Or…eh, you just have to watch to find out.
Why I Watched It
Partially, I felt a karmic need to balance out the casual sexism and objectification found in yesterday’s movie, Microwave Massacre, with something more progressive.
Truthfully, however, The Wind has been on my radar for months now. From the moment I saw a headline promising a new horror-western from first-time director Emma Tammi, my thought was, “You had me at ‘horror-western.” So many of our best horror movies are dependent on isolated protagonists, and what could be more isolating than living in the lawless, unsettled Old West, cut off from civilization as far as the eye can see? Yet, we hardly ever get horror-westerns. (Bone Tomahawk, Ravenous, and Brimstone are three obvious period horror-westerns, and you can certainly argue Near Dark and From Dusk Till Dawn a neo-western-horror movies?) Will The Wind prove the case for why we should get more of these things? Scroll down literally just two lines to see my answer.
Did I Like It?
To be clear, I’m saying “yes” to “they should make more horror-westerns.” As for the actual question of whether I liked The Wind, my answer is a bit more mixed. The Wind isn’t quite the bravura debut feature I wanted it to be. Instead, it’s an interesting first step in a promising feature-film career.
The genesis of the project, if I might summarize Emma Tammi’s own summary of events from her Letterboxd interview, is that Florida State University film student Teresa Sutherland wrote and directed a short filmed called The Winter. Producer Christopher Alender, an alumni of that same program, encouraged Sutherland to adapt it into a feature-length script. He then turned to Tammi – with whom he’d previously partnered on several documentary projects – to see if she might want to direct. By the end of that year, they were all on set making the movie together.
Sutherland took her idea from historical accounts of what some homesteading women went through, and while Tammi responded to that she also wanted to bring a little bit of The Searchers and The Shining to it, as cinematic influences. That’s why The Wind opens with an inversion of The Searchers’ famous final shot where John Ford’s camera peers out through a cabin house door frame and watches as John Wayne wanders off into the frontier, rejecting the call of domesticity. By contrast, Tammi, working with cinematographer Lyn Moncrief, opens The Wind with the camera peering into a log cabin door from the outside. Pained cries blast out from around the corner, and finally, a blood-covered mess emerges from the shadows.
It’s a confident, clever start to what turns out to be a too-convoluted-for-its-own-good movie. The story unfolds in fits, jumping back and forth between past and present. There are even flashbacks with their own flashbacks. It’s all meant to chronicle exactly how Lizzy got to be so alone in her cabin and newly of the belief that a demon is after her, yet for a story with only four primary characters, it need not be so complicated. I came away with the impression that a more linear approach might have worked better. Give us a montage of the harshness/mind-numbing monotony of frontier living. Drop us into the room as husband and wife sit in silence with nothing to say to one another. In short, give us a Ari Aster-like slow burn of pained silences and tortured personal relationships giving way to supernatural thrills.
To be fair, that is actually what The Wind does – it just presents it in a non-linear fashion. Too often, it feels like the movie is getting in its own way.
However, as a feminist deconstruction/character study and a bit of a puzzle box, The Wind has a lot to like, particularly Caitlin Gerard’s stunning lead performance. The pain Lizzy carries as the mother to a child who died within minutes of birth informs so much of what transpires, and the flashbacks where she has to confront her stark-raving mad, but pregnant neighbor bristle with as much energy as any of the actual supernatural sequences. As I teased in the plot description, The Wind ultimately toys around with whether the wind and demon prairie are real or in Lizzy’s head, and that ongoing mystery certainly adds to the enjoyment, though you might not like the conclusion it reaches.
Did It Scare Me?
I have been second-guessing why I have included this section in all of my 31 Days of Halloween articles this year. The fact is, I don’t scare easy anymore, at least not with horror movies. So, my answer to this self-imposed question is almost always going to be no. The Wind, however, got me. Tammi pulls off a couple of truly excellent jump scares which caught even old jaded me off-guard, and, yes, I jumped a little in my seat.
Double Feature Recommendation
The woman-losing-her-mind subgenre of horror is fairly rich territory, but what jumps out at me first is Rosemary’s Baby, a film which also plays with motherhood and how much is real vs. how much is imagined before a grand denouement. An alternative argument could be made for Robert Eggers’ The Witch, another period piece about what isolation did to the settlers. In tone and pacing, The Wind and The Witch are very similar.
Where to Rent
31 Days of Halloween So Far:
Next Up: An Itallian Giallo take on a famous Edgar Allen Poe story.