THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE (2015)
Review by Paul McMahon – “The Distracted Critic”
On a quest to locate underappreciated current horror movies, I watched more than my usual share of new releases in the span of a few weeks. One of the titles I came across was THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE. Doing some further digging, I discovered a very small but excited fan base for it, and all of them came with glowing recommendations. This is an obscure independent film that most people haven’t heard of, even though it’s streaming on Netflix currently. Of course I gave it a try.
We open with dead silence over shots of a bearded man in bed, but wide awake, watching the sleeping form of his partner. We can see only enough to identify a woman with her back to him. We hear her move but don’t see anything, and yet, in the next shot she is facing him. It’s still too dark to determine her features. The bearded man stares at her, not even trying to sleep.
Title card: THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE.
Now we see the bearded man on the phone, and are finally treated to the first sounds in the film. He’s asking, almost on the verge of begging, to meet someone in the park instead of an office.
The camera switches to a clean-shaven man at work, reading an online article titled “How To Ask Out Your Boss.” We see him in a conference room, grinning at a woman who is studying files in front of her. She sees him looking at her and rolls her eyes. On the train after work, he puts ear buds in, and a sexy voice tells him: “You are a mountain. You are a hundred miles high.”
His walk home is interrupted when he is astonished to run into the bearded guy from the opening sequence. Turns out they’re childhood friends who haven’t seen each other for a long while, and the bearded guy is in town for a couple of days. At first, their meeting is awkward, but then Christian (Evan Dumouchel), the clean-shaven man who wants to believe he is a mountain, invites Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews), the bearded man with the weird staring insomnia, to his apartment. He won’t take no for an answer. We get hints that when they last knew each other, Chris was a 98-pound weakling (“Let me take your bag, I’ve been working out”). We also find out they’re both coming off broken engagements. Chris has a room in his apartment containing things his ex left behind, and Wyatt says he’s okay that his own wedding won’t be happening.
Chris shows Wyatt around, snarking on his own life as he does. In the basement of his apartment he jokes that it’s for “killing people or raping animals.” He shakes his head at the poor joke and leaves, but Wyatt stays behind, gazing thoughtfully into each corner, as if he’s making plans. Finally, Chris calls him upstairs. The next shot they’re both gazing thoughtfully out across the city from the rooftop. Chris says he and Kat (his ex) were always going to throw a party up here, but it never happened.
Later still, Wyatt is alone in the bathroom pouring a beer down the sink. He then fills the bottle with water. He snaps his head up at the sound of a buzzing fly, but the camera doesn’t pick up anything like that against the baby-blue walls. Chris gets a ping on his phone, telling him he has a date with Mara (Margaret Ying Drake) in 25 minutes. He’s a little disappointed that Mara’s friend is coming along, but then he brightens and invites Wyatt. “It’s perfect,” he says. Wyatt tries to wiggle out, but he’s not too determined to get away and Chris’s insistence harkens back on a childhood connection that is too strong to resist.
While Chris showers, Wyatt sneaks back into the basement. He pulls a knife out of his backpack and duct-tapes it to the bottom of a table for easy access, then returns upstairs. Out on the street, walking to meet Mara and her friend Sandy, Chris gets a phone call. Sandy slipped on the ice and hit her head. Mara tries to beg off the date, but Chris insists they’re in the area so they keep walking and find the girls. Sandy doesn’t want to go to the hospital, but Wyatt sees something worrisome in her reaction time and tells her she should go. The three of them—Mara, Chris, and Wyatt—wait for a long time on those uncomfortable chairs, and finally get the news that Sandy’s being sent home. The awkward date ends awkwardly, so Chris and Wyatt head back to Chris’s apartment. When Wyatt tries to leave, Chris insists his friend stay with him as long as he is in the city. “Now that you’re here,” he says, “everything is going to be awesome.”
Night time. We see Wyatt in bed, staring at the girl beside him again. This time, there is the extra-loud sound of a ticking clock, which is interrupted when the girl’s face, shrouded in shadow, begins to emit a series of bone-crunching crackles as her mouth opens. Wyatt sits up, waking from the nightmare on a mattress beside Chris’s bed. His phone buzzes. He looks at it. It appears to be broken. It rings again. He answers. The person on the other end is obviously using a voice disguiser. It tells him not to look at Chris, to either go into the basement of the building or hang up right now.
Seconds later, standing in the basement, the voice says: “We warned you not to go into the cities.” Turns out, there’s an invasion happening, and the cities are crowded with the enemy. Their plan is to enslave and butcher every good person on Earth. Wyatt is to prepare for the war, and give up on the hope of helping Chris. “He is good, he is still human.” The voice gives him a series of instructions, which we do not hear, and then we see Wyatt back in the bedroom, standing over Chris, who is snoring away.
This is just the first fifteen or so minutes of the film. There’s more than an hour left by this point, and it stays intense and mysterious throughout. At the same time, it’s almost literary in the way it echoes themes between the two main characters, and in the way their conversations about nonsense things actually reveal so much about their history and childhood.
The performances are terrific. We see, essentially, three characters from beginning to end, Chris, Wyatt and Mara. All of the actors are newcomers trying to jump-start acting careers, and all of them succeed in making a great impression here. The tension in this one doesn’t let up, and keeps you guessing as to which way it will go from the start.
Writer/ director Perry Blackshear has demonstrated a terrific talent with this tale. He uses hints and foreshadowing to get big ideas across with a non-existent budget. He uses the big city as a backdrop, letting in just enough glimpses of other people to get the overcrowded feel, while still leaving the main characters in a bubble of isolation. Not every question the movie presents is answered, but answers are not needed here. We see a very distinct story play out between friends both old and new, and while there may be demons surrounding them disguised at humans, there’s also something dark and unspoken about the relationship between Chris and Wyatt that involves doctors and medications and hints of scary things that happened in the past.
I’m planning to keep an eye on all the principals in this project. They all make such an incredible impression in this fantastic film. Don’t let this one get away from you. Check it out.
I give THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE four and a half knives.
© Copyright 2016 by Paul McMahon
Paul McMahon gives THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE ~four and a half knives.