‘THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE (2016)’ tells a surprisingly human story against a frighteningly demonic backdrop
#31DaysOfHorror: October 1st, 2016
This October, as I have for the last three years, I’ll be watching 31 horror movies in 31 days and reviewing them all! You can see the ongoing list of what I’ve watched and reviewed here.
When they run into each other on the street one day, old friends Christian and Wyatt realize that they’ve each experienced a recent breakup. Perfect time to reconnect, thinks Christian, inviting Wyatt to crash with him for as long as he needs. It turns out both friends are “going through some stuff,” and they start to rely on each other for support.
Christian has faced crippling insecurity his entire life, and the breakdown of his engagement has caused his addiction to self-empowerment websites and audiobooks to spiral out of control, to the point where he’s become a bit of an egotistical monster to those around him.
Wyatt, on the other hand, is facing what is either newly-manifested paranoid schizophrenia, or the secret knowledge that the world is about to end as the last vestiges of humanity must battle real monsters, lookalike demons that have slowly taken the place of mankind. And he’s becoming more and more certain that his old friend Christian might not be who and what he says he is…
I’m a sucker for stories about homosocial relationships that function as critiques of dangerous masculinity, and on that front, They Look Like People doesn’t disappoint. At its core, They Look Like People is about the tender friendship between the two men as they learn to help each other battle their demons, both internal and external-that-might-actually-be-internal.
We come to understand both Christian (Evan Dumouchel) and Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) as genuinely good guys who are just trying to do right by their friends and loved ones, thanks in no small part to the excellent, understated acting from both actors, both of whom also served as producers on the film. This is clearly a micro-budget film — there are limited creature effects and no major gore moments — but what the film lacks in bombast, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. The handheld camerawork gives the film a realistic, intimate feel, as though we are sitting in the apartment with the friends as they have real conversation about their lives… a technique which becomes terrifyingly effective as Wyatt’s paranoia grows and Christian’s depression spirals.
The friends are both struggling, and the contrast between the scope of their problems — Christian’s battle with depression and growing alcoholism is intensely personal, whereas Wyatt’s couldn’t have wider-reaching consequences (if he’s not imagining everything) — makes their friendship all the more important when everything comes to a head and they must decide whether to stick by each other, or turn on each other and give in to paranoia and fear.
And there is much fear to be had. While the film does have long stretches where nothing “scary” happens, focusing instead on deepening the friendship between the two leads, when the scares come, they are incredibly effective. They Look Like People is an exercise in the uncanny; Wyatt’s whole struggle is that he has stopped believing that the people he sees in public are actual people. So, when the film takes a moment, pauses, and forces us to gaze at something as familiar as the face of a loved one, wondering as Wyatt does if there’s something evil lurking behind the eyes, the effect is profoundly unsettling.
The first scene in the film is of Wyatt laying in bed trying to fall asleep. Next to him is a body that we later find out was his fiancée; she turns over in her sleep and faces him, her features thrown into deep shadow. He frowns; is he imagining it, or… can it be… is something… changing…?
Nietzche wrote, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” In these moments where Wyatt battles the uncanny, struggling with his inability to tell human from demon as his fiancée’s face literally becomes an abyss, They Look Like People brings this quote to life. Wyatt buys axes and knives, trains himself to use a nail gun as a weapon, and stockpiles sulfuric acid, all on the instruction of mysterious voices that come to him in the night; is he really preparing to fight monsters, or is he himself the monster?
On a deeper level, They Look Like People is about two men struggling to find some sort of human connection (if you forget that one of them doesn’t think humans exist anymore) in a world where both have failed to live up to society’s idea of what a man should be.
While the film spares us too much background exposition, we can deduce that Christian was made fun of a lot when he was younger — we see a photo of him and Wyatt in high school and Christian looked far nerdier, and there are references to Christian as “the skinny one.” So he has turned to working out, spending hours in the gym to buff up, and he listens every chance he gets to an audio recording that tells him, “You are a mountain. You are a hundred miles high. All that your enemies place in your way — betrayals, lies, poison — you devour and become stronger. You are invincible. Those that try to hurt you will turn silent and will bow down.” Nonsense, in other words. When he realizes that Wyatt’s seriously struggling, Christian scrolls aimlessly through a website titled “How to be a Friend Indeed to a Friend In Need.” And Christian wants “a million kids” — a desire to reproduce, that most masculine of pursuits.
But he has failed. Like Wyatt, his fiancée was driven away — why, we’re not sure. It might have something to do with the fact that he’s rarely in the movie without a glass of alcohol in his hands. He may be more conventionally attractive right now, but he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere at his job, and his fiancée has left him, preventing him — for the moment anyway — from becoming the father he wants to be. Despite the self-help websites and the motivational mumbo-jumbo, he’s not the man he wants to be.
As for Wyatt, he’s starting to believe that no one is the man he wants them to be — namely, human. He, too, seems to have driven away his fiancée; he claims that she cheated on him and left him, which certainly could be received as emasculating enough, but as the movie progresses we get the sense that he had some sort of psychotic break when he hallucinated that she was no longer human (or saw through her disguise?). Adrift with no female support structure, Wyatt clings to the one thing that makes him feel more manly — what he believes is his destiny to take up arms against an evil invading force and protect the world. Violence! Hoo-rah.
I also appreciated that there wasn’t a single “no homo” moment to be found in the film. Generally, when films are about intensely-close relationships between men, there tend to be moments put into the script purely to prove to us that both men are heterosexual and have no sexual interest in each other whatsoever. Their initial reconnection on the street is awkward and uncomfortable in such a way that would absolutely suggest a past romantic history were one of them a woman, but the film never feels the need to clarify whether they were or weren’t any more than friends. Instead, they share jeans, hang around the apartment in their boxers, and even help each other shave, without a single moment where they feel uncomfortable with their intimacy and need to prove to themselves that they’re straight. It’s refreshing.
They Look Like People is well worth a watch, not just because its creepy, tense moments are phenomenally creepy and tense. In addition to the demons and devilry at work here, the film also functions as a critique of the Chosen One trope, a touching look at several forms of mental illness and addiction, and a testament to the healing power of unselfconscious male homosocial relationships to overcome evils both real and imagined. It’s a fantastically promising debut for director Perry Blackshear, and I can’t wait to see what everyone involved does next.