Starring MacLeod Andrews, Evan Dumouchel, Margaret Ying Drake
Directed by Perry Blackshear
If you are a fan of independent horror, you have likely developed a great admiration for filmmakers who can make the most of often meager budgets, minimal resources, or constricting limitations to still deliver first-rate chills. In recent memory, small-scale films like Willow Creek, Pod, and It Follows have succeeded through the use of ingenious filming techniques and deliberate pacing to pull audiences further into their respective atmospheres of dread without coming across as shoddy efforts. As an added bonus, these films also featured relationships that were well-developed and believable, adding even more to one’s connection with the characters to the point that you can’t help but feel a personal level of concern for their lives once all begins to go south.
Such an effective combination of techniques is equally identifiable in Perry Blackshear’s stunning DIY debut, They Look Like People, a psychological horror film in its most classifiable casing, but with so much more stirring underneath the surface.
The film follows Christian (Dumouchel), a twentysomething living in Brooklyn who is doing his best to climb the corporate ladder and rebuild his self-esteem after the end of a long-running relationship. When his childhood friend Wyatt (Andrews) comes into town, downtrodden and coincidentally on the mend from a recent break-up of his own, Christian offers to take him in and help him out, allowing Wyatt to stay in his Greenpoint apartment for a few days until he can get on his feet. As the days pass, however, it becomes clear that there is something else troubling Wyatt; he has been receiving mysterious calls from strangers claiming that the people around him are being overtaken by creatures. Soon, Wyatt begins to question whether he can trust anything or anyone around him, further putting himself and Christian in danger as his paranoia begins to increase to maddening levels.
Though They Look Like People may not register as a traditional horror film for some, it is best approached as a masterful exercise in deep psychological terror — and boy, is it one hell of an anxiety-inducing ride. In his first-time go at a feature-length film, Blackshear takes notable influence from Jeff Nichols’ 2011 drama Take Shelter and more subversive genre entries like Donnie Darko (I also gathered bits of Bug and Frailty peppered throughout as well). While the plot is admittedly very akin to that of Take Shelter, Blackshear’s film refocuses on this previously explored subject matter through an atmosphere-heavy lens that does not let up on the tension.
While not filled to the brim with action sequences and bloodshed, They Look Like People exudes a special kind of horror that stems from our basest fears of the unknown. Finding inspiration from his own personal dealings with similar situations, Blackshear has turned in an examination of mental health disorders that is handled with a delicate hand; not only does he delve into the innately overwhelming fears that accompany such diagnoses in a very visceral way, but also exhibits a perspective of empathy that elevates the film to an especially emotional level.
The relationship between Christian and Wyatt is truly the driving force in the film from the minute their characters properly reconnect, and Andrews and Dumouchel embody these roles with an earnestness that always feels natural. From the moment we see Wyatt called upon to help shave Christian’s upper back before a date, we believe in the lifelong intimacy between the two that is quickly reignited in this comedic, but endearing scene. Theirs is the kind of geeky bromance filled with late night “sock wars” and drunken exchanges about hopes and love that is never obnoxious or forced; at their cores, Christian and Wyatt are both emotionally perceptive men who have each others’ backs and place a great value on love and trust. The attachment we ultimately feel to their bond is what makes the deterioration of Wyatt’s sanity all the more heartbreaking, especially as we see Christian struggle to help him while suffering from his own psychological issues.
Regarding Wyatt’s spiral into madness, Blackshear early on establishes that mental illness — namely, schizophrenia — is likely the primary cause for his troubles. I say “likely” because even after this is made clear, the film still maintains a lingering sense of mysterious unease. Blackshear takes audiences for a ride on a swinging pendulum of skepticism as he lingers a bit too long on a suspicious stranger in a crowd in one scene and then focuses on a fanatical Wyatt preparing a makeshift doomsday bunker in the next. The beauty of the They Look Like People as an effective horror effort lies in its ability to continuously make its audience doubt what they see and hear in a way that very accurately simulates Wyatt’s experience. The audience will definitely continue to wonder if the faces he sees twisted into monstrous expressions and the unnerving voices he hears are in fact the sole result of mental illness, and such moments of nightmarish uncertainty prove to be far more chilling than what most of the major studio horror releases have had to offer this year. Bolstered by an otherworldly sound design and an effective use of shadows in its eerier moments, They Look Like People grows significantly more distressing with each passing moment.
In a move that keeps the film’s emotional balance intact, Blackshear’s script also see an engaging focus placed on Christian’s own emotional journey. He spends much of the film listening to self-help recordings and trying to muster the courage to make a move on his supervisor Mara (Drake, a quick-witted delight here). Ultimately, Christian’s own major personal setbacks reignite a latent and long-standing struggle with depression and sense of purpose within him. In the midst of Wyatt’s very heightened internal war, this contrary look at the gradual, but venomous effects of clinical depression on Christian is equally moving here. At the point when he falls to his own state of rock bottom, Christian begins to wholly indulge Wyatt’s mania, a grand gesture that comes from a place somewhere between undying trust and toxic co-dependency that puts him closer than ever to peril. As their respective breakdowns come to a head, the resulting conclusion is as poignant as it is pulse-pounding.
As minimalist horror debuts go, Blackshear truly impresses here, establishing an unshakable sense of tension and an enveloping atmosphere rife with substance. They Look Like People is a deliberately paced and subdued stunner of a film that succeeds above all in its genuine approach of concern and respect for its realistically horrifying subject mater. While the driving plot of the film may not be the most novel, there is a refreshing singularity in Blackshear’s directorial touch that certainly makes up for this, and the cross-genre qualities of the film — which take it from indie buddy drama to arthouse horror to a high-tension psychological thriller — keep it consistently engaging. With a film like They Look Like People, Blackshear has certainly set the bar high for himself as an intelligent filmmaker with a keen sense for emotional honesty that is so often is lacking in horror. If such raw explorations of the depths of human emotion and the mysteries of man’s psyche will continue to inform his follow-up efforts, I will be more than happy to follow along for the journeys to come.
Had a chance to catch They Look Like People? Sound off in the comments below or shoot me a tweet (@TheAriDrew) and share your thoughts!