Mitchell Brown says that Perry Blackshear’s debut horror film examines the fear and confusion of a mentally ill mind.
They Look Like People (2015) is Perry Blackshear’s debut feature-length film. It became an international film festival darling, winning dozens of awards, including jury awards at Slamdance, IFF Boston, the Nashville International Film Festival, and Most Innovative Film at Fantasia Fest. It went on to play theatrically before selling to Sundance International and playing on Netflix. It was developed on a small budget and portrayed the loneliness of living with a secret and the self-doubt a person faces when dealing with mental illness. The overarching theme is the importance of human connection and embracing a willingness to accept help.
The independent horror film tells the story of Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews), a twenty or thirty-something New Yorker who’s down on his luck after breaking up with his fiance. After running into his estranged friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel), a self-motivated go-getter, Wyatt begrudgingly moves in even though it’s been several years since they’ve seen each other. Wyatt and Christian rekindle their friendship and form a new bond between them. However, Christian doesn’t know that Wyatt is dealing with a personal crisis he believes will become a global one. Wyatt receives disturbing phone calls from a sinister modulated voice that warn him of an impending war between humans and monsters. The fundamental dilemma of the film asks: Is this threat real, or is it all in Wyatt’s head?
One of the movie’s shortcomings is that its solid premise is marred by its script. There are a lot of scenes of Wyatt and Christian where they spend most of their time hanging out and talking amongst themselves or with Mara (Margaret Ying Drake). The film would have benefited from fleshing out the characters more and progressing the story somehow. The dialogue feels unnatural at times. In one scene, a character threatens Wyatt, “Touch me, and I’ll rip your face out of your spine.” Whether that was in the script or ad-libbed is unclear. There are many times where the dialogue feels improvised, which, paired with a lot of handheld camerawork, gives They Look Like People a post-Mumblecore vibe. If a young Andrew Bujalski set out to make a horror film, this movie would probably be the result. It is subjective, but it didn’t work for me, whether that's a good or bad thing.
Andrews gives an excellent performance and conveys Wyatt’s paranoia skillfully. Particularly in moments where he’s in danger. His awkward mannerisms while trying to explain what’s happening perfectly articulate the isolation he feels, making him more sympathetic. When he begins unraveling, however, he might be the dangerous one. Dumouchel seems to be the comic relief, but a lot of the humor is awkward. In the latter half of the film, when Christian needs to appear calm and collected despite Wyatt’s hysterics, Dumouchel portrays fear and a calm demeanor to avoid escalating the situation. He’s also the focal point of a dream sequence where he stares down the barrel of the camera and smiles, which is one of the more unsettling scenes in the movie.
Some lines are recorded in post-production throughout the film, and those moments are distracting. Audio quality was a consistent issue during my viewing. While it left something to be desired during scenes with heavy dialogue, it excelled in adding intensity to the film. The opening scene, in particular, uses silence effectively to put the audience on edge. The sound design effectively unsettled me while very little was shown on screen.
One of the vital elements of the film is the creatures. They don’t appear very often, but when they do, it’s effective. The design of those possessed by the creatures is economical but straightforward for what the movie requires, especially in a scene involving a photograph. More often than not, the creatures are implied rather than shown, which adds to Wyatt’s hysteria and works to unsettle the audience.
While not reinventing the wheel for indie horror films, They Look like People cements Blackshear as an experimental filmmaker to watch. Technical missteps aside, the film has solid moments of tension and a surprise ending that directly answers whether the threat is real or not. There are no David Lynch levels of ambiguity, it’s answered outright, and sometimes that can be refreshing.
They Look Like People is streaming on Shudder and recently released on Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray through Yellow Veil Pictures.