Black Lake Director’s Cut: Renegade Film Festival 2023 Review

Year: 2023

Running Time: 90 minutes

Written and Directed by K/XI

By Brian Skutle

Director’s Cuts are always a dicey situation for a film. Sometimes, they can help correct films that had studio interference, like “Blade Runner” (1982), “Dark City” (1998) or “Justice League” (2017), and sometimes, they are able to allow the director to give a fuller representation of their initial vision, like the “Lord of the Rings” Extended Editions (2001-2003), the “Star Wars” special editions (1997), or Wim Wenders’s massive 287-minute version of “Until the End of the World” (1991). Sometimes, however, filmmakers use them to indulge in their own visions, whether they add anything to the overall product or not, like Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” (2009) Ultimate Cut.

In creating this Director’s Cut of her 2020 film, “Black Lake,” K/XI (pronounced K Eleven) is fulfilling a personal need, arguably more than a creative one, although for her- as we discussed in my profile of her last year- they are one in the same. Snyder’s completion of “Watchmen” is a good comparison for what Kei is doing, but a better one would be Francis Ford Coppola’s different versions of “Apocalypse Now” (1979), where the director is taking a masterpiece, and fleshing it out- and re-contextualizing it- further. Comparing “Black Lake”- a film that a fraction of the population that has seen “Apocalypse Now” has seen- to one of the great films in movie history seems like hyperbole, but my love for the film has been well-documented since I watched it at the 2020 Women in Horror Film Festival, and subsequent viewings of that version have only solidified my belief that it is one of the great films of the 2020s. Upon first viewing, her Director’s Cut only strengthens the film’s case for that.

An image from K/XI’s “Black Lake” Director’s Cut.

When K/XI first announced the Director’s Cut in October 2022, it was not a huge surprise to me that changes were coming to “Black Lake,” based on some prior discussions we’d had, but what did surprise me was how she said that it was going to be a shorter film than the 114-minute original cut. It’s always interesting to me when a filmmaker looks back at a film, and says, “What can I do to reshape this?,” and it ends up shorter. In the case of “Black Lake,” it wasn’t just a matter of tightening up certain scenes, but reshaping the narrative. At the Q&A that followed the film, K mentioned that she was taking the film from being more straightforward narratively to more experimental, but the irony is that I feel some choices she makes in terms of bulking up the film’s exposition does the opposite, and indeed, makes the DC more straightforward while maintaining some of the film’s most surreal, haunting moments. Regardless of how either of us view the film’s new vision in terms of accessibility, it remains a powerful vision, and arguably illustrates stronger the film’s idea of shared trauma among women when something awful happens to one.

The first thing we hear now in the film is Aarya’s voice. Played by the director herself, the words sound very much like the thoughts of an artist preparing to create their work, but by the time we get to the end, they will hold a more profound, darker meaning. And then, we see images from Pakistan, intercut with Aarya driving up to the secluded house in Scotland where she is hoping to have fruitful, isolated creative pursuits. As a gift, she will receive a beautiful silk scarf from her aunt Ayaneh (Aditi Bajpai), but soon she will discover a dark curse has followed it.

Aarya (K/XI) and the scarf in “Black Lake” Director’s Cut.

Few soundtracks have latched on to me as immediately and profoundly as BurningTapes’s score for the original “Black Lake.” The dark, insidious soundscapes- sometimes accentuated by rhythm- give the film a singular sound that distinguishes it from even the greatest horror films. When we discussed music at Renegade in 2022, some of what she said in terms of influences makes complete sense as you listen to the scores for this and “Maya” (2022). But as the process to reshape “Black Lake” changed, and the personal reasons K had for changing the film solidified, the music had to, as well. Now, the score- which includes some songs and classical pieces- is a collaborative effort between the original BurningTapes score, and new compositions by Teagan Johnston. It’s now Johnston’s work that takes center stage- and scores Aarya’s drive to the house- and not only does it maintain the same sense of the unknown that the BurningTapes score does, but the way the two are treated makes for a compelling case in using music that captures the moment of a film, rather than requiring a soundtrack that has a uniform sound. Here, K uses the BurningTapes music to highlight the darkness washing over Aarya as she realizes the truth about the scarf, while Johnston’s works as the emotional base for the character, her humanity and empathy coming through, along with providing new musical insights to the film in a traditional film scoring manner at certain points. I’m reminded of the soundtrack Stanley Kubrick compiled for “The Shining” (1980), which K also seems inspired by in some of the shots of Aarya driving at the beginning of the film.

Throughout the film, we get senses of waking hallucinations Aarya and Ayaneh are experiencing that feel more pronounced in the Director’s Cut for Aarya than they did in the original version. This ties into the film’s ultimate thematic and supernatural concepts. The scarf belonged to a woman who was brutally raped and murdered back in Pakistan. Somehow, it made its way to market, and Ayaneh bought it for Aarya. Now, both women are in the cycle of the Churail, a demon in South Asian folklore that forces others to experience the trauma of victimized women. The ways in which both women handle such an occurrence speaks to how different people process trauma. For someone like Aarya (and, by extension, K), that can be reflected in art that is deeply felt, and actions that lead them to their next evolution as an individual; for Ayaneh, not having that outlet can make it difficult to process what’s happening, and as such, her reactions are more impulsive. As the Churail takes hold of Aarya, she becomes more primal and understanding of what she needs to do, leading to a finale that works in the same way another Kubrick film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), operates- showing our protagonist where her place in the world is. It may not be a comfortable fate, but it is a necessary one.

A nightmare vision for Aarya in “Black Lake” Director’s Cut.

The 2020 incarnation of “Black Lake” won the Lizzie for Best Cinematography at the 2020 Women in Horror Film Festival- which was rebranded as the Renegade Film Festival when it returned in 2022- and it’s here, where I must say the work by K as her own DP- aided immeasurably by colorist Laura Pavone– is kind of breathtaking. Not only are the images in certainly shots borderline painterly, but the way light and color works during some sequences is riveting. The way the red scarf looks is in sharp contrast to the darkness that envelopes a lot of the film. And even more so in the Director’s Cut, the lake near the House Aarya is staying at looks legitimately black, but with enough color contrast to it when it comes to reflections in the water to where effects like the Churail makeup and costume, or blood in the lake, stand out. “Black Lake” looks as good as any movie we’ve seen released by a major studio in the past several years.

As I’ve gotten to know K over the years, and talk to her about her films, one of the things that I’ve learned is how much spiritual and emotional growth matter to her. Few people in my life talk as openly about their journey in these areas, and as someone who’s found themselves opening up more about my own journey in these departments since my own reckoning with both in 2008, I am moved and inspired. In reflecting on the 2020 version of “Black Lake,” she now sees- on the other side of her experiences with the film at Women in Horror in 2020, and in her own life since then- how much of a different person she is now. She had bravado heading into that moment, but she left with a better understanding of what was lacking- or what she might have had too much of, in a negative sense. The first step in that evolution was returning to “Maya”- which she had started prior to “Black Lake”- with the filmmaking lessons she learned on “Black Lake”; the next step was creating this Director’s Cut of “Black Lake,” not just as a way of perfecting her vision of the film, but in “shedding the skin,” as she’s put it, of who she was when we first watched it at Marietta’s The Strand Theatre in 2020, and revealing more of who she was as she debuted this version for us at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre in a special screening after the Renegade Film Festival in 2023. The film- in both versions- begins with a quote by Jung about how no tree can grow to Heaven unless its roots reach down to Hell. If the 2020 version of this film represents K/XI’s roots reaching down to Hell, the Director’s Cut is this tree growing to Heaven.

K/XI and Brian at the 2023 Renegade Film Festival.

Read more about the 2023 Renegade Film Festival at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s