With the arrival of Robert Eggers in horror cinema last decade, we have seen a renewed interest in folk horror. Tales of localized terror that reveal, in some part, a larger tapestry of the culture they exist within. Eggers' own The Witch (2015), Na Hong-jin's The Wailing (2016), and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter (2011) all arguably fall into this moodier, more atmospheric kind of horror. Then in 2018, we were blessed with the premiere of Edge of the Knife, a First Nations film that exemplifies the best that sub-genre can be and then some.
Edge of the Knife is an intimate, docudrama-esque depiction of life between two Haida clans and a haunting recreation of one of their thrilling legends. At an annual fishing retreat, the families have on the Haida Gwaii, an unexpected tragedy occurs when a child named Gaas washes up on shore dead. His parents, Kwa (Willy Russ) and Hlaaya (Adeana Young), mourn his loss while Adiitsʹii (Tyler York), likely responsible for the death, runs deep into the forest mad with grief and guilt. He turns into a Gaagiixiid, a possessed feral man, disfigured and animalistic as his time in the forest progresses. A year later, the clans return to discover him in his frenzied state and contemplate what to do. Kwa is conflicted in wanting to avenge his son.
The narrative is on familiar grounds for a dramatic horror film but delivers it exceptionally well. Edge of the Knife spends the first third of the runtime building characters and their dynamics before anything horrifying occurs. We see how the families pleasantly navigate their lives, perform menial tasks, and interact with each other. A love triangle between Kwa, Hlaaya and Adiitsʹii that explains unease in their dynamics becomes apparent, and Adiitsʹii and Kwa show deep love for Gaas. When his death occurs, it is shocking and instantly changes the tone of the film, much like the Adiitsʹii is transformed into the Gaagiixiid. The film uses this transformation as a metaphor for intense grief/guilt and how it traumatizes us beyond recognition.
While all the cast gives commendable performances, Tyler York's as Adiitsʹii in the second third of the film bears special recognition. He is the only on-screen character for nearly the entire portion of the film, which he carries with tremendous aplomb. The charming, charismatic performance he gave early on makes way for a feral descent into madness. He runs through the forest, crawls on all fours, and emotes a beastly intensity that is hard not to be impressed by it. Some immaculate makeup, detailing every deep cut and injury he sustains throughout the film, accentuates the performance considerably. Such work is courtesy of Toby Lindala and his makeup crew of first time (to film) artists.
With key exceptions, many of the cast and crew of Edge of the Knife are new to feature film work, especially its co-directors Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown. Edenshaw is a Haida artist who frequently explores issues of his community, and Haig-Brown is a Tsilhqot'in director known for her surreal short film The Cave (2009). The unique fusion of these sensibilities works incredibly well, from Haig-Brown's evident technical comprehension and Edenshaw's understanding of the culture. Helping them realize their vision for the project is producer Zacharias Kunuk, the highly acclaimed Inuik director known for similarly representing his community through cinema in The Fast Runner. Alongside Kunuk as a producer and cinematographer is Jonathan Frantz, whose contributions to the film are among the most pronounced.
Jonathan Frantz's cinematography is markedly different from the work he has done with Kunuk thus far, which showcases how versatile of a director of photography he is. Frantz's work on this film has fewer long takes than in his work with Kunuk, and a less vibrant color palette emphasizing the dour tone of the narrative and dense arboreal setting. The more familial sequences are told with a matter of fact, well-constructed, naturalism as opposed to when Adiitsʹii transforms. The shot compositions are dynamic and expressive, with slanted angles and experimental use of exposure and other visual tricks, more in line with Haig-Brown's aesthetic in her short The Cave. In one of my favorite shots, the camera glides uncannily through the wood as Adiitsʹii runs towards a fire that he can never reach. The camera shows us his perspective as we become similarly unhinged in a desire to reach the flame, only for it to disappear as soon as we reach it.
Outside of the supernatural elements, we see characters performing individual tasks and their specific customs. In most instances it gives a sense of realism to the film, as though we are eavesdropping unto a random day in their lives. Other times, one extended scene in the third act about tobacco in particular, feels mildly distracting and detrimental to the structure of the narrative. Yet, when we consider the motivation of the film, this structural issue is more excusable. The film began life as a project to have a means of preserving Haida language for future generations while also promoting the education of that language. That is why it is an adaptation of a specific Haida legend, and why there are two families: there are two dialects of Haida, and the film wants to showcase both. The film is, explicitly, about preserving to film the way a culture sees itself and continues to exist.
When viewed through this lens, the opening and closing shots take a particularly haunting quality to them. After an establishing aerial shot of the Haida islands, we see a mask being placed into a small fire, smoke and flame funneling through its features. A narrator explains the myth of the wild man, motivated to find the warmth of a fire and eventually possessed by spirits. This same shot is repurposed just before the credits roll over the inflamed mask. What was initially intriguing bookends for the film becomes hauntingly poetic. The mask, the tale it represents, the culture it is a part of, and the very language it exists within, could all be lost to time. As the mask becomes ashen, one might wonder how many cultures and their stories have been lost, unpreserved, and forgotten by our modern world.
Thankfully, the film's efforts to preserve the language are successful, both through its existence and in how it has already inspired active interest in Haida. When the film began pre-production, there were less than 20 speakers of the language. Now, with the cast and crew having learned the language, there are considerably more. What is more, we are likely to see even more films made by this same cast, crew, and production company, who will further teach people they work alongside.
Perhaps it would be unfair to review a film with such humanitarian aims as a piece of entertainment. Yet to do so is to ignore the soaring accomplishment of a film that Edge of the Knife is. A profoundly human film that brings folktale to vivid and visceral life, Edge of the Knife is a masterpiece of horror cinema. Creatively crafted, wonderfully acted, and genuinely unnerving and grueling in places, it is easily one of the best-underseen gems of the last decade.
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