Written and Directed by: Perry Blackshear
Starring: MacLeod Andrews, Evan Dumouchel, Margaret Ying Drake
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Love, loyalty, and living nightmares.
Generally speaking, the horror genre tends to portray madness and insanity as a means to an end, and those ends usually involve mind-fucks or characters being butchered. It’s rare to see a film that aims to capture just how profoundly terrifying it must be to lose one’s mind, particularly the angst and ambiguity of it all. How awful would it be to cling to whatever shreds of sanity you had left? Even worse, how terrible would it be to not even be sure of those shreds? They Look Like People dwells in these unsettling corners of a damaged brain in a deeply disturbing fashion, in the process painting a portrait of madness that is simultaneously unnerving and affecting. This is a horror movie that’s as melancholy as it is scary because writer/director Perry Blackshear understands that true madness is a heartbreaking, traumatic affair for all involved, including those left to wrestle with those suffering from it.
When old friends Wyatt (Macleod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Dumouchel) bump into each other on a New York City street, the two take some time to catch up and shoot the shit. Both have experienced recent break-ups and feel generally directionless in life: Christian listens to self-help tapes in order to help him overcome his insecurities and “dominate” life, while Wyatt quietly toils away at odd jobs. He’s actually due to take a bus out of town in a couple of days, but Christian invites him to crash at his place, where the two hang out as if it were old times. It looks for all the world that They Look like People could easily be yet another riff of listless twentysomethings trying to navigate a world of adult responsibilities. Noah Baumbach might as well have directed this shit.
However, a vague menace looms in the distance, and it’s not just the specter of adulthood. Something legitimately unsettling arrives in the form of a bizarre late-night phone call Wyatt receives, as the spooky, otherworldly voice on the other end insists that a demonic invasion is imminent. What’s more, Wyatt is among the chosen that have been tasked with forming the eventual resistance: in the meantime, he must leave the city, avoiding all contact with the unidentifiable demons walking among him. Looking them in the eyes will be particularly disastrous, as they’re capable of infecting new hosts. Thoroughly freaked out by this development, Wyatt retreats to Christian’s basement to fashion weapons and brace for a demonic apocalypse.
Even with these developments, it feels like They Look Like People could go a few different directions. Is it going to be an offbeat, mumblecore allegory for growing up? Will it be a low-key Twilight Zone riff? A paranoiac pod people movie? In truth, it’s not quite any of these things but rather kind of a movie pot-boiler surrounding Wyatt’s sanity (or potential lack thereof). Both Christian and a psychiatrist allude to his possibly schizophrenic condition, yet the film refuses to completely tip its hand, perhaps in an effort to perch the audience in Wyatt’s mindset. Many films might allow the answer to hinge on a climactic twist to satisfy an audience’s craving for a surprise, but this one has them truly invested beyond that. You want Wyatt to find some manner of peace that doesn’t involve literally involving for an apocalypse that may only be unfolding in his mind.
As such, They Look Like People is genuinely unsettling to watch: Wyatt is the proverbial “good dude,” played with a sort of quiet, desperate dignity by Andrews, an actor who doesn’t need to resort to obvious, pyrotechnic acting displays to convey his anguish. He constantly seems to be at war in his head, fighting against the urges towards which his mind compels him. At one point, he grabs a nail gun, heads to a rooftop, and points it at unsuspecting passersby down below. It’s a stark depiction of madness, one that feels like a battle for an actual, good-hearted soul. The tension here arises not from whether or not a nail’s about to crash into the back of someone’s soul but rather if Wyatt will succumb to the demons whispering in his mind. I have never wanted a scene to not end with a nail gun massacre so much in my life. In fact, I am not sure a horror movie featuring a nail gun has ever put me in such a position.
The characters here are that compelling. What the film lacks in scripted character depth it makes up for with small moments that speak volumes, such as a childish sock war between the two buddies. There’s a familiarity here, a lived-in quality shared between the two actors that’s crucial in establishing the stakes: even if Wyatt’s lunatic ravings don’t actually herald the end of the world, it could utterly destroy both his life and that of his friend. Dumouchel is an interesting counterbalance to Andrews: Christian might not seem as desperate as Wyatt, but his insecurities put him in an awkward position to help his buddy. In many ways, he needs Wyatt as much as the opposite is true, and this realization slowly creeps up on you—both of these guys are struggling and just need someone to have their backs.
This is never more obvious than it is during the harrowing climax, wherein Wyatt’s freak-out reaches frightening proportions. I love many things about this film, but I mostly love Blackshear’s restraint here: rather than indulge a temptation to get too cute, he walks just up to the edge of the Twilight Zone but wisely backs off. Other films (looking at you, Take Shelter) are undercut by this, yet Blackshear manages to resist. There’s something deeply resonant about his ending here, though it’s not exactly one you might expect from an otherwise disturbing film. It’s the right one, though, and They Look Like People lingers because its stays committed to its characters until the end. In tackling a tough subject, it doesn’t take an easy way out; instead, it confronts the difficulties of battling mental illness. It doesn’t let you off the hook with an easy resolution.
They Look Like People is an unconventionally disquieting film, one that coaxes shudders through subtle, unnerving images, ethereal phone calls, and heart-wrenching performances. It’s almost unfair that a film this resounding should could feel so effortless, and it heralds Blackshear’s arrival as an exciting new talent.
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