North Brooklyn has seen its share of campy DIY horror films (think Ava’s Possessions and Summer of Blood), but They Look Like People is dead serious. Last night at the kickoff to Northside Film Festival, Perry Blackshear’s work of psychological suspense elicited gasps during scenes in which its tightly coiled tension snapped like Hitchcock’s noose.
Blackshear’s debut feature is a curious combo – part buddy movie, part horror. Which might explain why the director, an alum of NYU’s film program, was hesitant to categorize it as the latter. “We sometimes were even nervous calling this a horror movie,” he told the crowd at Nitehawk during last night’s q&a, “because we don’t want people to come in expecting heads exploding with gore and stuff like that.”
Indeed, the film starts off a little bit Chuck & Buck: Wyatt, a sheepish bearded type whose engagement has just fallen apart, is crashing at his old friend Christian’s place in Greenpoint (the film was shot largely in and around Blackshear’s apartment near McCarren Park). Drunk, dorky bro-down sessions ensue.
“So, this is the basement,” says Christian (played by Rob Lowe lookalike Evan Dumouchel) as he gives Wyatt (played by Macleod Andrews, who resembles a slightly less unhinged Matthew Silver) a tour of the house. “It’s for killing people and raping animals.”
That joke (along with an obligatory quip about skinny jeans) plays for one of the film’s few laughs, but it proves ominous, because Wyatt ends up spending a lot of time in that creepy basement. And as he starts getting phone calls from a mysterious voice giving him commands, killing people seems more and more like a very distinct possibility.
As it turns out, a friend of Blackshear’s once struggled with similar schizophrenia-like symptoms: “He began to believe normal people were becoming replaced with ‘fake’ people,” he says in his director’s statement. “Evil people.”
Last night, Blackshear revealed that his understanding of schizophrenia was also shaped by a news segment in which a virtual reality device allowed others to experience the disease: “It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen,” he recalled. “Not just because people were turning into demons and there were rats crawling everywhere and walls were disappearing, but because you couldn’t stop it.”
In a way, They Look Like People is the narrative counterpart to the newly released documentary about sleep paralysis, The Nightmare, since both films depict characters who are terrorized by their own psyches.
But Blackshear insisted that he “didn’t want to just make a movie about a crazy guy,” and that he “tried to show that the sane character was almost as insane as the guy with the problem.” Indeed the plot delves into Christian’s attempts to empathize with his increasingly off-kilter friend while also trying to get his own romantic and professional acts together.
That material hit home for Blackshear, who said that the script, written in two weeks, attempted to address “some of the more pragmatic stuff about hitting 30 and having your dreams not being what you expected, and friendships that mattered and relationships that mattered dying away and not knowing how to start over.”
You’ll find all of that here, but let’s face it — it’s not what you’re coming to this movie for. Blackshear cited Let the Right One In, The Babadook, and It Follows as some of his favorite movies (he also admitted to borrowing elements from Take Shelter), and the film is planted firmly in that genre. Add to which, if you’ve ever been delightfully creeped out by the way the Nine Inch Nails song “Eraser” builds from an insectile buzz to a furious crescendo, you’ll be similarly affected by the soundtrack to Wyatt’s episodes.
You’ll also be impressed by Blackshear’s ability to make something from very little: he cast some old friends and collaborators in the film three months before he began shooting — before he even had a story, much less a script. Then, partly while moonlighting from his job at Brooklyn-based agency Huge, he shot the film over the course of about four weeks, keeping things so streamlined that Margaret Ying Drake, who plays Christian’s love interest, also had to hold the boom mic at certain times. Given all that, the production is remarkably polished.
Unfortunately, last night’s screening was the only one at the festival, so if you missed it, you’ll have to wait till it gets wider distribution or, if you’re the jet-setting type, see its upcoming international premiere at Fantasia in July.