They Look Like People (2015)
Written and Directed by Perry Blackshear
Starring MacLeod Andrews, Evan Dumouchel, Margaret Ying Drake
1 hr 20 mins
DIY filmmaking is astonishingly hard. Even a short film with a condensed cast and economical locations not only costs more money than you’d expect, but also more labor hours and gas money and lost sleep and cups of coffee than you’d imagine. I’ve been in those trenches, both behind camera and in front of camera. It’s not glitzy or glamorous. It doesn’t pay well (if at all). You’ll often find yourself wondering if this is all going to be worth it.
Then you see They Look Like People and you remember that, yeah, sometimes this can work out.
Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) is having a rough time. He’s getting phone calls at night from a creepy voice saying that the people around him aren’t what they seem. That they’re not really human. That the monsters are starting a war and Wyatt has to fight it. When he crashes with his childhood friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel) and tries protect him from the end of the world, he starts to wonder if he, Wyatt, is the real danger here.
Putting it that way it sounds like some big-scale cosmic horror showdown. Well, like Wyatt’s monsters disguised as humans, this film isn’t what it seems. What you get here is a very small, intimate character drama that’s mainly concerned with delving into the psychologies and strong friendship of its two leads. In the vein of Take Shelter, you get a sympathetic portrayal of mental illness and paranoia that doesn’t feel like the shallow plot device a lot of thrillers use it for. There’s a debate to be had about the way mental illness is used in fiction, that maybe it’s too often exaggerated or fetishized, leading to frightful misconceptions about the people who suffer from it. They Look Like People is sort of an antidote to that, as far as horror films go. The “voices are telling me to kill everyone” and creepy hallucinations are still there. But they’re used not so much as the basis for a plot as much as the start of a character arc.
In order for a friendship-based movie to work you need fleshed out characters and actors we can connect with. This is risky business, especially for an ultra low budget indie, since good talent will usually break your bank. Thankfully MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumochel (who were also producers) give two of the most authentic performances in recent horror. Both characters are dealing with unique private struggles, Wyatt with the monsters, and Christian with crippling insecurity in his professional and personal lives. Watching these guys on screen, they feel like real people. Each has plenty of solo scenes where he gets to shine individually. Wyatt gives us the horror elements with his apocalyptic visions, and his balancing act between private torment and trying to act as normal as possible to everyone else. Christian gives us some endearing and comedic moments as he tries to reinvent himself at work and start a romance with his likable boss Mara (the equally authentic Margaret Drake). And when Wyatt and Christian are together you completely buy their friendship thanks to their naturalistic banter and sock fights.
This isn’t a horror movie in the sense that the entire film is focused on steadily escalating tension and attempting to find creepiness in every beat. They Look Like People plays out primarily as a lo-fi indie drama about young New Yorkers trying to find direction in their lives, with the frightening stuff sprinkled in. The film maintains a slow-and-steady pace throughout. This lets the daylight drama feel real time and natural, while the creepy scenes get drawn out enough to build some unbearable tension. The tonal shifts are abrupt and drastic, but that’s probably the point. The cinematography in the daytime scenes is flat and unremarkable, but once we get to the nighttime horrors, there’s excellent use of chiaroscuro and POV to give us a dread-filled subjective trip into Wyatt’s head. There’s inventive stuff going on in the sound design too, with strong auditory cues when Wyatt is starting to slip again.
Still, the DIY origins of the production are pretty apparent. Some scenes are shot in bland, nondescript rooms that tell me they probably couldn’t get the location they really wanted. Even though the audio is impressive during the monster moments, some of the dialogue scenes are shoddy. A couple of wide shots have very boomy audio, a giveaway that they couldn’t find a way to get the microphone close enough to the actor and not have it show in the shot. Plus, there are a few moments of incredibly obvious ADR. They certainly aren’t Tommy Wiseau quality, but are still enough to take you out of the film for a second. I’m really just nitpicking here though, because I’ve been in those DIY trenches and know what it’s like to make those mistakes.
Every young indie filmmaker who’s made a few shorts says, “Oh yeah, I’m working on this really economical feature script and as soon as it’s done I’m just gonna shoot the thing. No pitching to studios, no boardroom meetings. Just get a couple of friends together to be cast and crew and shoot in our apartments on the weekends or something, ya know. And bam, we’ve got a feature to show at big festivals. Yo, pass me another PBR.”
This is arguably the best path to choose for a low budget production. If you decide to go for an ambitious, globe-trotting, effects extravaganza, there’s a good chance you’ll spread yourself thin and make your low budget that much more apparent. Or you can use your limitations to your advantage to create a simple, contained film your cast and crew can really sink their teeth into. In the case of horror, you’re forced to forego flashy effects and rely on restrained tension and great performances. Basically instead of trying to impress us with production value you focus on telling a good story.
Writer/director/cinematographer/producer/production designer/editor Perry Blackshear and his tiny crew actually did it. And they’re a rare success. They made the same technical mistakes pretty much anyone would make in their position. But despite their small numbers they managed to make a rare sort of horror film: an effectively emotional character study that has something to say and actually has a proper ending. They guys are pretty excellent role models for young filmmakers who want to do a lot with a little, and I’ll be keeping an eye on their upcoming projects.
They Look Like People is currently streaming on Netflix.