They Look Like People (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Many horror pictures and psychological thrillers tend to employ mental illness as a source of fear by perverting to the point where it is unrecognizable. Cue the cheap jump scares, exaggerated violence, superfluous gore, and shrill screaming. But here is a picture that belongs under these genres and yet its approach toward the subject of mental illness is entirely different. Instead of providing the audience the expected, it is willing to take numerous surprising turns. Before we know it, we wonder how it might be like if we, our friends, our loved ones suffered from schizophrenia. How would we react?
Writer-director Perry Blackshear should be proud of his first full feature film. It reminded me of Lodge Kerrigan’s highly underrated “Keane,” also about a man also struggling with schizophrenia in New York City, in that we follow the protagonist as he hears strange voices warning of people being taken over by evil, as he struggles to decide what is real and what isn’t, as he chooses certain courses of action that are downright questionable, certainly concerning. The story being told with such a deliberate slow pacing, we are put into the mind of someone who is increasingly unable to tell between the rational and irrational.
MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumouchel are terrific as friends who find themselves in an unexpected reunion. Andrews and Dumouchel play Wyatt and Christian, respectively, the former attempting to hide his mental illness and the latter struggling to maintain a facade of masculinity. Both are afraid to be seen exactly as they are. The performers share great chemistry; we believe their characters shared a past through the many amusing, awkward, and touching occurrences that transpire in that small apartment.
We root for them to help each other out and succeed, even though they themselves are in no position to help anybody. Sometimes the meaning is in the attempt and it is beautiful how Christian and Wyatt try to navigate through what they do not fully understand. What they do understand completely, however, is that they have each other’s backs. I admired how the writer-director’s screenplay handles male friendship and the love that tethers that friendship without going for easy, cheap laughs as can be seen in a handful of independent comedy-dramas. It is not interested in going for the lowest hanging fruit.
The hallucinations are terrifying because these are handled with tact. Special and visual effects are used sparingly. Instead, we hear more curious sounds—like “ringing” of the cell phone when it is obviously turned off, voices on the other line, random scratching noises, sound of thunder when it is sunny outside—than we see ostentatious, standard horror imagery. Clearly, “They Look Like People” is a first and foremost sympathetic study of a specific abnormality of the mind than it is yet another splatter film.