Well into Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People, its scruffy protagonist Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) saunters the rooftop of a New York apartment building, gazes upon the passers-by below and puts them in the sights of a nail gun. As he does this, angelic choral music rings in his ears and ours; one of sparse few audio cues that inject his tormented headspace into the movie’s shoestring reality. He thinks that some of them are evil shape-shifting demons looking to replace the entire human race, and it’s unclear if he’s right or not. Through this blasé shoulder rub of contemporary New York with a higher power’s calling card, you could almost make out the pulpy macabreness of Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To. Instead, we view this through the tight purse strings of mumblecore, and it’s not the greater good that this hero is working to resolve but his own listless apartment life, shared with another drifter named Christian (Evan Dumouchel) and started by a scarring separation from his fiancée. Spiritual allusions are otherwise backgrounded as the film fixates on their dopey friendship, and rather than defining a cohesive story or a chilling horror conceit, Wyatt’s mad distrust of others winds up a slipshod symbol for roommate tensions, as though a landlord inspection were the real impending apocalypse.
Said male bonding is a strange gear shift from the paranoid horror Blackshear’s debut feature dives into in the first five minutes. There, Wyatt suffers the first of a number of nightmares, watching in bed as his would-be wife’s darkened face erupts in off-screen gore, then wakes to a recurring phone call, from voices both strange and familiar, warning him of his destiny to stop the scourge of low-rent Body Snatchers. He goes wandering into Christian’s life as a reprieve from his mental issues but soon starts to believe what he’s being told, not because it’s been argued narratively or aesthetically but because it’s time for the inevitable scenes where he creeps out Christian and his boss-cum-ladyfriend Mara (Margaret Ying Drake) with his mad ramblings. Not that Christian is much saner by comparison, since he’s obsessed with excelling in his office career, leaving his complacent old self behind and dominating his own life. One guess how successfully that goes. The fact that we’re given such a view of his vanity might be intended as both levity and symbolic parallel of Wyatt’s torment, but the film loses itself too much in oft-improvised banter for that contrast to carry through on either count.
What the two men do share is a compulsion to keep up manly appearances, Christian especially with his fondness for using aphoristic cue cards and iPod recordings to motivate himself. Blackshear has much blunter ideas for shepherding them together, though. As plot turns put the kibosh on the ideals they’ve set for themselves, it shows overly self-conscious bonding sessions, cresting with a montage of the two on a drunken home bender, draping themselves in bedsheets and shouting sea shanties, which get repeated as throwbacks during tense moments later. This screams “low budget” rather than cheerful spontaneity, more even than the litany of low-level technical fumbles (flares, muffled sound, an odd zoom in one confrontation scene that looks like a finger slipped). With so much multi-tasking among the cast and crew – Blackshear alone writes, directs, shoots, produces and edits, and the two leads co-produce – it makes sense for the production to play to strengths and use the resources they’re given, but it can’t substantiate this particular story or pull off its mishmash of comedy and horror.
Whatever character logic exists here disintegrates as the dark conclusion ramps up, and fixates on the crazy-or-not query that started Wyatt’s arc in the first place. Several meagre effects and a half-considered ending later, there hasn’t been much of any genuine scares, involving character drama or smart comedy to have made the affair satisfying or emotionally engaging. Especially given its threadbare production, They Look Like People didn’t have to ball-bust like Cohen, nor even repeat the novelty of mumble-horror flagbearers like Baghead, but it just doesn’t provide much of anything to distinguish itself next to the similarities.
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