Sunday, April 26, 2015

'They Look Like People' review (2015 River Run Film Festival)

Horror films with a heart and soul have taken a resurgence lately, with major critical appraise for movies like It Follows. These flicks have been lauded by film fans everywhere as smart and scary alternatives to the jump-scare and found footage obsessed Hollywood executives who pump the horror dreck into cinemas each year. They Look Like People, a microbudget horror film that has toured the festival circuit for the last few months, stands head and shoulders above most of the chillers that I've seen in my lifetime. A complex, dark and disturbing drama with a terrifying dash of sci-fi horror thrown in, They Look Like People masterfully deals with tough subjects in an extremely compelling way. This is a true independent film in the spirit of the word, but it once again proves that a great film can come from anywhere.

Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) is going through a lot of trouble in his life. He doesn't have a job, his longtime girlfriend broke up with him, and oh, not to mention that he's convinced that the people around him aren't actually human. When he shacks up with his successful friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel), Wyatt begins to hear voices, see things and begins to prepare to fight these creatures using a variety of dangerous weapons like a nail gun and sulfuric acid. Wyatt's insanity begins to become a problem for Christian and his girlfriend Mara (Margaret Ying Drake), who experience his craziness first hand. Christian and Mara must decide whether to help Wyatt get psychiatric treatment or fight through his end of days scenario. 

When I saw It Follows last month, I thought that it failed to be anything more than a repetitive series of creepy scenes that never really amounted to a successful whole. I still enjoyed the movie, but it's a thematic mess (an STD monster is creative, but what's the point you're trying to make). They Look Like People is the polar opposite. This is a film that is biting, exact and terrifying in its portrayal of schizophrenia and mental illness. While there are certainly several scenes that will get your heart pounding, what lingers after the movie is over is the film's seemingly honest and straight-up scary look at what goes on inside the head of those who suffer from this terrible illness.

In a Q&A after the film, director Perry Blackshear discussed how he watched a simulation where it showed what it was like to have schizophrenia. He said that it absolutely terrified him, and it's clear that that experience had a profound effect on the film. Blackshear's treatment of mental illness is profound, it's scary, it's moving, and most of all, it feels realistic. Wyatt hears voices, sees things, and it all works to create an atmosphere of dread that makes They Look Like People one of the most intense film experiences I've had recently. 

It helps that Blackshear has three talented actors in his corner. MacLeod Andrews is brilliant as the psychotic Wyatt, but he walks the line finely between creepy and unlikable. No matter what Wyatt is doing, we always feel for him as audience members. We understand his pain and want to help but nobody is really sure how to do it. Evan Dumouchel plays Christian well, and he's the audience's link to Wyatt's crazy world. Christian makes some odd choices especially towards the end of the film, but it's clear that he wants to be a good friend and cares about Wyatt. 

Another fundamental joy of They Look Like People is that Blackshear understands that you need to care about the characters in a horror film. This film isn't constantly scary. It's sweet and funny and has some really energetic and enjoyable moments. The relationships between Wyatt, Christian and Mara are fully developed and during the final minutes of the film, it truly pays off. The finale is cathartic and relieving for the audience, leaving us on a high note rather than going for a cheap cliff hanger (looking at you, It Follows). 

Blackshear is also an immensely talented director and a guy who could truly break out. This film was his first full directorial debut and with a festival response as strong as this, I really hope that this film breaks out into theaters and Blackshear gets to tackle some bigger projects. He has a knack for both creating dread and writing interesting characters, which is critical for a horror film director. It was very enlightening and enjoyable to listen to him speak at the Q&A session after the film, and I was disappointed that I didn't get to talk with him further. 

They Look Like People is currently only playing on festival circuits, but I think that it will find a way into theaters eventually. This film is too good to be stuck in limbo, and I believe that we'll be seeing more of Blackshear, Dumouchel and especially MacLeod Andrews in the near future. They Look Like People is the perfect independent film, a terrifying and smart horror film that feels like a warm-up act for three very talented performers. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Image Credits: River Run Film

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