2017’s Fantasia Film Festival runs July 13th through August 2nd.

The safe bet for any filmmaker who found success with his/her debut is hew close to home with their follow-up. If your first film is a popular, acclaimed horror picture… make another horror picture. Director Ted Geoghegan chose the road less traveled though in following up his atmospheric and bloody debut, We Are Still Here, and has instead taken aim at something more historical, relevant, and meaningful with Mohawk. Of course, that’s not to imply things don’t get plenty bloody.

The United States is still in its infancy and for the second time engaged in war with England. The Mohawks are but one Native American tribe caught up in the carnage, but while others have taken sides the Mohawk Nation has attempted to remain neutral. That hasn’t stopped the slaughter though, and decisions must be made. Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) is a Mohawk woman whose two lovers are advocating for a violent response — Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain) is of her nation and believes they must fight, and Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) is a British soldier urging them to strike out against the rampaging Americans before it’s too late.

But it is too late, and as a rogue group of Americans head their way Two Rivers commits a deadly assault of his own which immediately marks them as fugitives on the run. The Americans are coming, and there may be no escaping their greed-filled wrath.

Mohawk finds power in its themes and performances while also delivering a handful of genre-friendly moments, but while its ambitions noticeably exceed those of Geoghegan’s terrific debut, they come at a price the budget can’t quite afford. It’s most evident in the tangibles of location and set-pieces as there’s little to visibly distinguish one scene from the next geographically, but it’s also there in what we don’t see. Kills and action beats happen more often off-screen than on, and while we see some of the aftermath it still feels like we’re missing too much for the intended impact.

Geoghegan’s script, co-written by Grady Hendrix, sets a dramatic stage on both sides — the Mohawk tribe and the invading Americans — and it succeeds in crafting a conflict where neither villains nor heroes are all that clear-cut. We side naturally with those who first made a home across this land, but they’re not all innocents. Two Rivers’ night raid is the first act of violence occurring within the confines of the film, and it triggers the chase and immediate fight for survival that follows while also blurring the line between good and bad in fascinating and unexpected ways.

While most of the characters exist in something of a moral fog, two stand out. Oak has walked a fine line of avoiding violence when possible, but the time for ambivalence comes quickly to an end forcing her hand in understandably violent ways. Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington), by contrast, is hellbent on exterminating a people he views as pests. He’s a sharply-written antagonist brought to vividly frightening life through Buzzington’s intense and cruel performance. This may not be horror in the same sense as We Are Still Here, but it is very much a horror film as the cold terror exuded by Holt makes him every bit the memorably vicious killer. There are monsters here, but they’re real.

Holt’s horrific nature bridges genres here in an effectively frightening way, but later events fare less well. It feels almost as if the film couldn’t quite distance itself as far from conventional horror beats as Geoghegan may have intended. One example, while a slasher film’s killer is “allowed” to suddenly appear in frame for the purpose of jump scares, characters here — realistic figures traipsing a leaf and branch-covered forest-floor — shouldn’t manage the same silent feat on a repeated basis. Similarly, there appears to be some uncertainty as to just how grounded the film’s later story turns should be.

As unsure as some of the footing becomes individual elements show a firm hand both onscreen and off. Wojciech Golczewski‘s score starts powerfully with a propulsive opening theme, and its shift into synth works far better than you’d expect in a period film. Geoghegan and cinematographer Karim Hussain reunite to deliver compelling (and in one case claustrophobic) visuals in building their world. Performances are also generally strong with Buzzington, Rain, and Jon Huber capturing viewers’ attention in different ways — Huber stands apart (and head and shoulders above) as a soldier ready for the death to end. The contrast of his large size and his decidedly soft presence is a reminder of the multiple contrasts and conflicts at play.

Mohawk tells the violent and devastating story of people overrun by an invading presence, but its basis in a very real history doesn’t make it any less horrific.

Poster Mohawk