They Look Like People showed here in Chicago as part of the 2015 CIFF programming. I entertained thoughts of catching it but it was showing far away at a theater situated in an area that has no reasonably priced parking (can I write that off on my taxes?) and I didn’t have anyone to go with and I was tired (probably) and I’m old and the sun was in my eyes and on and on. So, I didn’t see it. But I put it on my “to watch” list and even saved it in my Netflix DVD queue so that I’d get it when it was released. In other words, it sounded cool and I wanted to check it out even though I was too full of lame excuses to see it in the theater (cinema?) like I should have. Imagine my delight when I saw it pop up on Netflix instant! (it’s there now. well, at the time of this writing anyway) My delight became ecstatic joy when I saw that it is sub-90 minutes! (hyperbole!) Obviously, I watched it.
Wyatt is a strange bearded dude. He lies awake at night in the dark staring at the woman sharing his bed. The shadows covering her exposed shoulder and face create an alien look that seems to weigh on Wyatt’s psyche. Worried about his mental health, he reaches out to a therapist asking if they can meet somewhere besides his office, like a park. In the meantime, he heads into the city (NYC) to visit a childhood friend, Christian. Christian is a trusted friend that Wyatt has known forever, so he can be sure he’s not “one of them”. Over the next few nights, Wyatt receives mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night from an individual with a voice modulator. The caller tells Wyatt that Christian is still “good” but that the “evil” ones are planning an all out attack very soon. Christian is somewhat alarmed by his friend’s behavior and general weirdness but he clings to the nostalgic friendship as a liferaft in the uncharted waters of his socially perilous life. See, he’s been through a bit of a transformation recently. His girlfriend left him and, since then, he’s decided to stand up for himself more. This takes the form of exercise to build muscle onto his (previously) scrawny frame, and constantly listening to a self-help style affirmations recording. The boys (i know they’re men, but they regress a bit) fall right back into a comfortable camaraderie complete with middle-school level horseplay. The fleeting happiness Wyatt gets from this relationship doesn’t improve his paranoia. Is he crazy, or is there really a supernatural apocalypse on the horizon?
They Look Like People is gorgeously shot, tightly edited, and expertly sound designed. The tone is set perfectly from the very first scene. The darkness that surrounds Wyatt’s girlfriend as she sleeps; the deep shadows across the contours of her body and face; and the just-too-loud sound of her breathing, mesh perfectly to create a dreadful anxiety in the viewer that is greater than the sum of its parts (a woman asleep in the dark). And it is a particularly adept introduction to Wyatt’s state of mind. He stares as if trying to understand the impossible. His trepidation and fear are palpable. When he gets to Christian’s house and surreptitiously tapes a knife to the underside of a table, we pity him, but we are also worried that his fears may come true. (this is a horror movie after all) Throughout the entire film, the audience is placed directly in the center of Wyatt’s struggle. Is he delusional? Is this really happening? It makes for some conflicting emotions at several turns where the viewer simultaneously wants Wyatt to run/attack/defend and to avoid taking action because it could all be in his head. This only serves to heighten the emotional impact of the story to profound levels. We truly hope that this sympathetic character isn’t suffering from paranoid schizophrenia (with intermetamorphosis), but we fear the alternative. We want these friends – both going through some heavy shit – to be the lifeline that each needs to get their lives on track or to get each others’ backs when the monsters-that-look-like-people shit hits the fan. That gravity and effective appeal to our human belief in pure interpersonal connection are what elevate They Look Like People from most psychological horror films (i don’t love that term either, but it fits). And they’re just a small component of what makes this a great film. (the 80 minute runtime helps too) With this feature film debut, Perry Blackshear shows a level of expertise rarely achieved by directors with double-digit films under their belts. His writing, directing, producing, editing, cinematography, and production design credits (and acting) on They Look Like People put him firmly in the auteur category. He’s a filmmaker that I will certainly keep tabs on. Especially if he continues to make genre films.
The Final Cut: They Look Like People is supremely effective psychological horror deserving of a place among the great contemporary horror films. It is a paragon of filmmaking craft that is terrifying, intelligent, and emotionally engaging.