It Feels Like Horror: Thoughts on “They Look Like People”
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of going into a horror movie blind, when you only have the vaguest idea of the plot. Such was the case with They Look Like People, a new film which showed up on Canadian Netflix recently, though I’d been hearing good things about it for months.
Due to its particularly evocative title, I was already uneasy, but when the first scene played out, I became more unsettled. A man is lying in a bed on his side; the room is full of shadowy darkness. He is gazing at a sleeping woman next to him but her face is obscured. The only sound is a clock ticking. Immediately I was reminded of many of my own sleepless nights, when I have suffered from panic attacks that were provoked by crippling insomnia and anxiety, but I wondered if there was something more going on in this movie.
As They Look Like People continues, information is imparted to the audience by precisely delivered but subtle exposition. The film relies heavily on the facial expressions and body language of the main cast to clue the viewer in to what is happening. The main cast is minuscule, with two men and a woman carrying most of the weight. As such, their interactions become incredibly important and even the smallest gesture or slight change in vocal pitch takes on profound meaning.
But what is happening in They Look Like People and what does it mean? The film doesn't rely on the cliches of horror movies even though it feels scary. This is partly because the viewer is continually on the edge of wondering whether the main character Wyatt is mentally unstable or whether there is some sort of supernatural or alien conspiracy at work. Yet Wyatt doesn’t display the stereotypical actions or mannerisms of a “crazy” person. Sure he buys a bunch of questionable tools at a hardware store, but nothing that would set off any Department of Homeland Security alarms.
Horror fans constantly bemoan the lack of character development in genre films so it’s a wonderful surprised that They Look Like People is a film that is all about characters. On a deeper level, it’s also about character. Although it’s focused on Wyatt, his friend Christian has his own issues and the way he deals with them illustrates that one man’s crazy is another man’s insecurity. In addition, the friendship between Wyatt and Christian is at the core of the film. There are no corny montages, just conversations and actions that are mundane or even silly but which feel wholly genuine.
Still, even when we think we know where the film is going, it shifts. Wyatt acknowledges that he has a very real problem and Christian accepts that his own life needs to change, but as we watch things unfold our fears are provoked by something else.
Will the rug be pulled out from under us? Is Wyatt’s paranoia well-founded or not? Unlike Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, the horror in They Look Like People does come from external forces; they just aren’t the ones that Wyatt thinks are a threat. That makes it an unexpected and thought-provoking genre film that pushes the boundaries of what the term “horror” can mean and how it can manifest itself in cinema.