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McManus Brothers Sound Off: The Block Island Sound draws the filmmaking duo home

“Everyone knows what Block Island feels like in the summer, but in the winter it’s like a Stephen King set, just a spooky place,” says Matthew McManus. “It’s cold, every house is boarded up, every tree is barren — it has this wonderful, eerie quality to it. We just fell in love with it.”

Matthew and his brother Kevin McManus are the directing duo behind The Block Island Sound, the indie horror film that premiered in August at Fantasia International Film Festival. The movie was a homecoming for the Warwick natives, who shot their debut feature, Funeral Kings (2012) in RI, and went on to garner an Emmy nomination for their writing on the hit Netflix series “American Vandal” in 2018.

The Block Island Sound focuses on a series of strange happenings on the titular island. First, a mass beaching of fish, which brings marine biologist Audry Lynch (Michaela McManus) back to her hometown. Once there, she finds her grizzled fisherman father (Neville Archibald) has been acting strange. After a sudden tragedy, Audry and her brother Harry (Chris Sheffield) must reckon with the mysterious force disturbing the island. The film blends a cosmic horror story with a taut family drama, and the sibling dynamic between Sheffield and McManus has real depth and believability.

The film also taps into cultural anxieties over climate change. Numerous mass animal die-offs are mentioned, and each of them, according to Kevin McManus, are sourced from real life events. “It’s funny how many people have emailed us with an article like, ‘All these fish died off, you guys predicted it.’ It’s like, ‘No, this happens every day,’ so hopefully this is a way of bringing attention to that. Two-thirds of wildlife has died out since the 1970s … it’s pretty fucking dark.”

Another uncannily relevant part of the movie is Dale, Harry’s conspiracy theorist pal who attempts to tie the island’s strange happenings together. “When we were writing him we thought we’d get dinged for this by critics, like ‘This guy doesn’t really exist,’” says Matthew. “Sure enough, just when we’re ready to put it out into the world, half the country are these crazy
conspiracy theorists. I guess it’s more prescient than we could have appreciated.”

The impetus for the film came from a college experience: “We were shooting a zombie movie, and we needed a place that would look abandoned and not cost a fortune. It was February on Block Island. I think as soon as we saw it we thought, ‘We need to do something bigger here, longer here, something real.’ It’s been in the back of our heads ever since.”

They got their chance in spring 2018. “We shot April into May, so it started ice cold and ended sweltering hot. We were like, ‘We only shot for 15 days, how did we get summer and winter and no spring?’ But that’s about right for Rhode Island.”

The McManus’ Block Island is beautiful in its barren bleakness — a washed out seascape beneath which lurks eldritch, Lovecraftian forces. The film is full of local color and insider details, and it’s clear the McManuses relished their homecoming. “My sister is one of the leads in it, my mom makes a cameo, my buddy Matt Giacheri is one of the producers — it felt like this great communion of all these people we’d worked with when we were kids. It was a special experience.”

One more McManus family member made it into The Block Island Sound, in an unexpected way. I remarked on the movie’s unnerving, ethereal soundscape, which I learned has a secret ingredient. Kevin explains: “The ‘monster sound’ you hear was a really hard one to pin down. We had it written in some kind of gibberish in the script, and everyone kept asking us,
‘So what is the sound going to sound like?’… Nothing was quite working, and eventually, right after we were done shooting the film, that September I had a daughter, so we took a break from the film for a minute, and when she was about seven months old, she started cooing in this high pitched guttural way, in short little bursts, really high pitched, and if I slowed it down 15%, it had this almost crocodilian growl to it. Suddenly, you get this really organic creepy otherworldly kind of sound that’s really hard to put your finger on, and of course it’s just a little baby. It was exciting to give my daughter her debut as a monster.”

The McManus brothers hope that the film will appear at other festivals in the near future. It will be available to the public sometime in 2021. “It was fun being able to make another film in Rhode Island,” said Matthew. “Something just draws us back to shooting there.”

Michaela McManus, Matthew McManus, Kevin McManus, Chris Sheffield.
Photo cred: Erin Douglass

To see the film’s trailer, go to youtu.be/2P30Ynj0gxA

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