Two long-time friends are haunted by voices with quite different messages in writer/director/editor/cinematographer/production designer Perry Blackshear’s mesmerizing psychological chiller They Look Like People. Christian (Evan Dumouchel) listens to motivational recordings from someone important to his past, while Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) is plagued by late-night phone calls instructing him how to protect himself against monsters that masquerade as humans. These creatures are bent on destroying mankind and the final battle is drawing nearer, the callers tell him.
When a film has a limited budget like this indie offering, it had better have something going for it to keep viewers engaged, because they can guess that they aren’t in store for a spectacular special-effects showcase. They Look Like People delivers with its slow-burn narrative that offers mystery and spookiness throughout, along with captivating, naturalistic performances and an unwavering eye on a psychologically fragile character.
Christian is an office worker looking to be upwardly mobile who works out with weights to put his awkward past as far behind him as he can. Wyatt is more concerned with the immediate future than the past; after all, the end of mankind at the hands of demons and monsters looms ever nearer. When Wyatt returns to his hometown, he meets Christian on the street and winds up staying at his home. One of Wyatt’s first actions there is to secretly hide a knife in the basement to protect against the oncoming evil that, the mysterious callers tell him, could take the form of a friend or loved one.
Christian has a date with his boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake), who he has been wanting to ask out for several months. He persuades her to bring her friend Sandy (Elena Greenlee) along so Wyatt can join them but Sandy takes a fall and they all spend a good part of the night in the hospital waiting for a diagnosis. The waiting room scene offers a dose of humor. They Look Like People has a bit of levity sprinkled throughout, some of it light and some much darker. In all cases, it helps to lift the mood and pace the story well.
Sandy, an engaging young lady with a sarcastic personality and who claims to have a good set of self-defense skills, continues the game of “Will romance happen for us or won’t it?” with Christian by visiting his home later. When he goes out for a short time, Wyatt takes her down to the basement, where he blindsides her with questions about the coming evil apocalypse. The tension that builds in this scene, punctuated by a period of staring in silence, is one of several in They Look Like People in which it feels like something terrible is going to happen at any second.
Perry Blackshear does a magnificent job of keeping things vague, in the shadows, or otherwise hidden just out of the reach of visual clarity. For example, when Wyatt’s cell phone rings, viewers can’t quite make out whether the device is lit up because we only see the back of the phone. Wyatt sometimes sees faces near him that are obscured by shadow but the sounds while this happens make for an eerie atmosphere for him and for viewers. The buzzing of flies may never be quite the same to you again. Perry Blackshear’s use of light and shadow combines with his stirring sound design to create an unstable, haunting atmosphere in which we never feel safe ourselves nor for the characters.
They Look Like People works so well because of the relationship it establishes between its characters. The film’s tense, thrilling climax makes viewers heavily invested in its outcome because it relies on the the long-time, well-established bond between Christian and Wyatt. “I don’t believe what you believe but I know that you believe it,” Christian tells Wyatt at one point, and so begins a display of trust that is nerve-racking, edge-of-the-seat stuff.
The terrific performances of Evan Dumouchel and MacLeod Andrews make the friendship feel natural and believable. Each actor brings out the insecurities in his character that make them feel human and that help viewers relate to them. When the climax begins and slowly unfolds, it is absolutely riveting. Margaret Ying Drake is splendid as a charming, strong woman with an edge who is thrust into the psychologically unstable world of Christian and Wyatt.
Perry Blackshear has an impressive list of credits in short films. His feature-length debut, They Look Like People, establishes him as a creator of engrossing indie psychological horror and a talent to keep watching.
They Look Like People: (4 / 5)