On paper, “Black Mountain Side” sounds like a movie this blog would love. Taking inspiration from “The Thing” and “The Shining,” the Canadian 2014 indie horror promises psychological and cosmic thrills with heaping helpings of isolation, paranoia, out of place archaeology, hallucinatory experiences and snow.
There’s one problem. “Black Mountain Side” is aggressively boring, which sort of hurts my chances of appreciating much of it.
“Black Mountain” tells the not unfamiliar tale of a team of researchers dicking around in a particularly chilly patch of British Columbia looking for remnants of the local prehistoric culture. When they uncover an out of place artifact – a carved slab that looks like it fell off a Mesoamerican temple – they call in an expert to take a look. But before he can offer an opinion, weird things start to happen. The team’s native workers leave inexplicably. Radio contact with the outside world goes dark. Team members start to exhibit a host of unsettling psychological and nightmarish physiological symptoms. Are the events the result of mental weakness? The unleashing of an ancient bacteria from beneath the ice? Or something far darker, older and unearthly?
The intention of “Black Mountain” is its influences, and its influences are pretty clear. Writer-director-producer Nick Szostakiwskyj takes the slow burning madness and title cards stating the date from “The Shining” and pretty much everything else from “The Thing.” There’s enough similarities to start a running tab. We’ve got an opening scene featuring a helicopter landing and a team member playing a computer game; an all-male team; a radio operator trying to raise someone on an unresponsive system; people running around at night in parkas; an unexpected amputation; a couple of autopsies; a late game conversation about trust; and a climax that utilizes dynamite and the f-word.
Don’t worry, “Black Mountain” doesn’t feel quite as blatant a rip-off as “Lily C.A.T.,” or as goofy a stew of influences as “Breach.” The movie tries to use its many references in the service of its Canadian setting and mythology, and it mostly succeeds. If anything, there could have been a little Algernon Blackwood. I wouldn’t have complained. Probably.
I will complain about how boring everything is though. I have no problem with horror that takes its time. I do have a problem with horror that doesn’t go anywhere. Horror can be low key, thoughtful or formalistic, but then it typically involves psychologically interesting characters, philosophical musing or artistic expression. “Black Mountain” has none of that. It has characters that are not people, but rather things the plot can push around and occasionally murder.
There’s no delineation between these characters. They aren’t even stereotypes. They’re just bodies. Can you reasonably tell one from the other? I can’t. I know there’s outside science man; he’s an archaeologist and someone whose camp noob status gives the audience a useful cipher for exposition. I know there’s a doctor guy. You know he’s a doctor because he gives everyone sleeping pills for their various neuroses and infections. Seriously. There’s a point where he starts just carrying them around in his pockets for when anyone brings up any kind of symptom. There’s also another guy who hangs out in the radio room sometimes. I don’t know any of their names. When someone starts hearing voices in the after-hours, or someone else goes nuts and hacks off their own hand, I have no idea who that is compared to the other half a dozen-ish guys. I’m not even sure who camp leader is.
I hate to do this, but the movie brought it upon itself. Compare the characters in “Black Mountain” to those in “The Thing.” In John Carpenter’s film, the men at Outpost 31 feel distinct, with individual quirks and varying responses to the unimaginable situation they’ve been thrust into. There’s also a question about who the camp leader is, but it’s one of the primary sources of tension in the film. Garry is officially the leader, but his authority crumbles due to his age and uncertainty, allowing more charismatic figures like MacReady and Childs to start bickering their way to the top. Childs clearly wants authority; MacReady says he doesn’t want it, but he’s awfully good at assuming it. Garry pouts and lamely steps aside. In a film about figuring out who’s inhuman, it’s a very human dynamic, and it’s arguably one of thriller cinema’s most fascinating dynamics because it’s made up of such distinct individuals.
On the other hand, at one point in “Black Mountain Side,” one dude tells another dude to “look into” all the crazy shit. Why that particular dude? I dunno. Reasons, I suppose.
It doesn’t help that none of the actors are very good. The quality of perforancehovers between stale cold reads and overeager community theater players, with the dividing line typically between whether the character is still sane or has gone crazy. Accordingly, there’s no sense of people slowly going insane. They’re just kinda suspicious one minute, then a scene later they’re giggling about how they haven’t slept in days and no one’s leaving the camp alive.
A certain amount of blame can be placed on the plot, which doesn’t bother to establish a consistent reality any more than the characters do. Again, I don’t mind if a world is weird or features unexplained elements, but it has to sport some internal logic so that when crazy stuff happens, it actually feels crazy. “Black Mountain” doesn’t establish that logic. It isn’t surreal. It just doesn’t seem to care.
There are a number of unresolved issues. I’m not talking about the nature of the alien entity haunting the camp. I think the film walks a nice line between whether the threat is supernatural or bacterial, admirably resisting the urge to take sides. I’m talking about the myriad little issues that pile up. How did the native workers leave, given everyone says the ice is unassailable this time of year? Did they actually leave? Are they dead or in hiding? Don’t know. What about the dudes who stay in the camp? Were there any hints of paranoia from before? If so, we don’t hear about it. There is a dead cat everyone forgets about. What’s up with that? What about the camp itself? Is this dig really so profitable? No one seems that upset when the scheduled supply drop doesn’t happen. Why should anyone care about any of this before before the space crazies set in?
The most painful example is a throwaway observation that the invading parasite seems to be turning its host’s cells into those of an octopus, another reference to “The Thing” and, presumably, everyone’s favorite elder god. An entire scene is spent on it. There’s a one-liner about aquariums. Then it’s all forgotten. Even the film’s more generous defenders note that this does nothing for the story. At best it’s an inside Cthulhu joke that isn’t particularly funny; at worst it’s an attempt at spooky weirdness that’s just another frustratingly unanswered question.
Curiously for a film that tries to be cryptic, there is very little atmosphere in “Black Mountain Side.” That is no fault of the visuals, which are bleak and beautiful and sometimes quite interesting. Two men smoking outside, a tennis ball hitting a wall, the last sane person in camp confronting a madman next to a mirror – these are compelling images, well blocked and framed, that take full advantage of the location’s foggy forests, pine-knotty cabins and blank snowbanks.
The sound is far less effective. The audio is mostly OK, although sometimes things are obviously recorded in another room on a later date. I cannot remember a note of the score. Given how little there is happening onscreen, it would have been nice to have some jarring sound cues or moody ambient tracks, but instead there is, like the rest of the film, nothing. And I hate to bring up “The Thing” again – kind of – but Ennio Morricone’s ominous score was an integral part of the tension and atmosphere of that film. Perhaps the lack of soundtrack here was a conscious choice at setting the bleak tone, but with little else to hold onto, it was a choice I find it hard to get behind.
The final disappointment is the monster, whose presence is intriguingly doled out for much of the film. It’s all a gutteral voice, a hoarse and harsh whisper, maybe in the head of whatever unfortunate character is onscreen. That voice, provided by Nathaniel Gordon, is easily the best performance in the film. Then they had to show the thing, and it becomes much less effective. It’s not even a bad effect. It’s just… unremarkable. A Val Lewton show-don’t-tell apporach would have been far more effective, harmonizing with the film’s ambiguous efforts and atmospheric intentions. Instead we get a poorly telegraphed hunting trophy (earlier in the film, the archaeologist states that its clear certain images of a deer on the Mesoamerican-style slab are “god-like.” How’s it clear? The film never bothers to explain).
Even if we just accept the creature as a budgetary constraint and cut the film some slack, the movie still doesn’t know what to do with its own cosmic horror musing. Probably the most powerful point of the film is undercut by its lack of purpose. At the climax, the entity – which is still (conceptually) hovering between alien god and hallucination – echoes the book of Job, stating in that awesome voice: “When an animal looks up at the night sky, what does it see? Thousands and thousands of tiny points. Then a man looks up at the same points and sees millions of stars, galaxies, within which are billions of planets. Do you want to know what I see? Were you there when I created the stars?”
“No,” responds the human it has cornered, in the tone of a petulant child. Later, that same human asks why the entity killed so many people. It replies: “I have to go.” Huh? Is it late for an appointment?
I have spent way too much time on this, but not since we began the “worst cosmic horror movie” project last November have I felt so disappointed by a film. “Black Mountain Side” has a great premise – an isolated setting, out of place archaeology, ancient bacteria, maybe metaphysics maybe mundane – that it effectively wastes. Some pretty photography and a cool voice for the creature cannot make up for the lack of characters, continuity, pacing, soundtrack and purpose. The film is also quite bleak, but that’s par for the course in the genre. I don’t know if it was the filmmaker’s intention, but the conclusion had me laughing out loud. I guess that’s worth something.