Nikki is a sound recordist working on a film in the middle of a forest in Australia. Sent out to capture sounds of the outdoor ambience, she hears something over the headphones. She tries to discover the source of the mysterious sound, leading her deeper into the unknown.
Writer-director Andrew Montague has fashioned a horror short based on the schism between what we hear and what we see — and how the imagination sweeps into the breach, conjuring our worst fears. Though we don’t see the source of the strange noises at first, Montague is able to exploit the gap between sound and image to not only ratchet up curiosity — both for Nikki and the audience — but also conjure up a sense of tension and dread, particularly as Nikki gets closer to discovering the truth. Nikki and the audience are tethered together in an unusual degree of intimacy thanks to the sound, and as she strives to bring sight and sound together, so do viewers at the same time.
The film begins in a clever way, with a scene from a more conventional horror film, complete with melodramatic screams from a cornered heroine. What follows after the director calls out “cut” is much less conventional. The pacing and photography are almost meditative as we get inside of Nikki’s head as she works and investigate the sounds she’s hearing. We hear the birds chirping, the wind blowing, the insects buzzing — the forest is full of beauty, peaceful even, until we hear something altogether more ominous.
The short relies, of course, on stunning sound design, and is best experienced with headphones. The outdoor sounds are beautifully layered with the sounds of Nikki walking and talking, but the source of the mysterious sound is excellently woven into the audio “mise en scene.” As Nikke gets closer to the source, the ominous noise gets louder, blotting out almost all over sounds, except for a tense, menacing ambient soundscape that creeps in. Once she discovers what the sound is, she screams, becoming the central figure in a horror movie of her own. The audience’s own full discovery is held back to the film’s very end, as Nikki tries to piece together what happened. The film then defaults a more traditional horror feel — and also one final thrilling fright.
“Blackwood” is an unusual horror short with its emphasis on sound, its almost meditative tempo and pacing and its privileging of mystery over the grotesque. Beautifully shot and uniquely paced, in many ways it could be considered minimalist, from its elegantly pared down premise to its small cast and lack of dialogue. But it’s no less visceral in its evocation of fright and fear, proving that the biggest monsters are the ones we conjure in our minds, with just a hint of suggestion.