One of our favourite films at this year’s Film4 FrightFest was writer-director Perry Blackshear’s gripping and sensitive chiller They Look Like People, which not only gave us the most convincing portrait of a friendship that we saw at the whole festival, but also some of the biggest scares.
After some time apart, old buddies Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Dumouchel) reconnect in New York. Christian’s got a whole new outlook on life that revolves around motivation tapes, confidence and working out. Wyatt seems to be at a little more of a low ebb, having recently broken up with his fiancée. Christian insists that Wyatt stay with him, and it’s not long before they fall back into their old patterns.
However, Wyatt’s troubles are much greater than Christian realises. He’s been hearing voices telling him that the world is coming to an end, and that he will have to fight against the threat that is already here.
They Look Like People wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the relationship at its core wasn’t so involving and affecting. As it is, we’re invested in seeing how the reconnection between Wyatt and Christian will play out even before the genre elements begin to creep in.
Christian’s attempts to recreate himself border on the obnoxious (“I used to get pushed around at work but then I started to dominate!”), but when he’s with Wyatt, we see the warmth underneath his cocky exterior. His budding relationship with his boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake, who also deserves high praise for her performance) shows a man caught between the image he wants to project and a guy who is easily wounded. As the film progresses, Dumouchel excels as Christian realises that he’s not got things figured out at all.
Meanwhile, Andrews is superb as Wyatt, giving a low-key performance that works beautifully as the character inches closer to a place there’s no coming back from. We’re so invested in these characters that much of the film’s horror comes from simply watching Wyatt’s steady, deeply unsettling journey. The phone calls in the basement in the middle of the night, the shopping for supplies, the questions he asks Christian that are loaded with meaning…the quiet sense of impending doom is beautifully played and it’s incredibly tense.
The restraint that Blackshear shows is one of the film’s greatest strengths. When it breaks from being a mumblecore-style drama and begins to send chills down your spine, it’s as underplayed and naturalistic as the Wyatt-Christian relationship. The inside of Wyatt’s head is a scary place to be, as the whispered phone calls from an unknown intelligence become increasingly bleak, the sound of swarms of flies that signifies a non-person becomes increasingly frequent, and he seems to become increasingly reconciled to the fact that drastic action will have to be taken.
This also makes the question of whether or no Wyatt really is losing his mind more complex; the lack of big effects or attempts to shock means that Blackshear could really go either way, and he delivers a nerve-shredding and extremely satisfying conclusion.
Truly frightening, absolutely gripping and genuinely moving, They Look Like People is an very impressive debut indeed. We can’t wait to see what Blackshear does next.
They Look Like People does not currently have a UK release date. This review is an extension of our Film4 FrightFest coverage. Keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.