Black Mountain Side (2014)

*. Influence is a tricky business. Done right, it’s an homage or creative re-imagining. Done wrong and it’s a rip-off.
*. Black Mountain Side has several influences, but primarily it’s derived from John Carpenter’s The Thing. An all-male team of scientists stationed in the far north uncover mysterious ancient artifacts. The men seem to be infected in some way by what they have unearthed, leading to an outbreak of paranoia, madness, and murder.
*. Now The Thing is a personal favourite of mine, as I think it is for a lot of horror fans. Black Mountain Side is no Thing, but you can’t hold it to the same standard. It also goes a slightly different route, by choice or by necessity.
*. This makes it, in my opinion, quite an interesting and well managed indie horror. It moves slowly, and quietly, but builds suspense through the gradual ungluing of the team’s mental state. We strain to see what it is they think they’re seeing, we mistrust our own eyes, we are unnerved by absence, suspicious of silence.
*. I’ll add in passing that the DVD has another one of those commentaries (by writer-director Nick Szostakiwkyj and some of the cast and crew) that doesn’t mention the film’s biggest debts. Specifically,I don’t recall anyone referring even in passing to The Thing. I only raise this point because so many commentaries do this. The commentary for Quarantine never once mentions Rec, which it is a remake of. Slither‘s commentary doesn’t mention Night of the Creeps. The commentary for Don’t Breathe doesn’t mention The People Under the Stairs. In at least some of these cases this silence must have been on purpose, but I don’t know what that purpose was. It’s not like the borrowings weren’t obvious.
*. They also don’t say anything on the commentary about the title. The title bugs me. It’s actually the name of a Led Zeppelin song from their first album, but I don’t know if this was a connection anyone had in mind (most of the people involved in the project seem to have been very young, and so might not have even known about it). Is the camp located on a black Mountain? On the side of Black Mountain? I don’t get it.

*. My mouth dropped open when the visiting professor is given the tour of the camp and his cabin is referred to as a cramped “shithole.” They seem like luxury accommodations to me, especially for an archaeological dig out in the middle of nowhere.
*. But then this isn’t the kind of film where you want to examine such matters too closely. I mean, who exactly among all the members of Team Beard are the archaeologists? Seeing as the natives do all the digging, I’m not sure what most of the bros have to do except sit around smoking and drinking. And they smoke and drink a lot. A stronger screenplay gives characters more to do when they’re not actively advancing the plot.

*. That’s enough carping though. As I said, I like Black Mountain Side. It’s a horror film with negative capability, content to leave us in a state of doubt as to what is actually going on. I thought they might all have been hallucinating because of getting into some strange roots. I remember Mark Kermode suggesting the same thing with regard to the supernatural events in The Witch, and it seems even more likely here.
*. In any event, whatever the cause of their madness, because it affects everyone we don’t have anywhere to stand where we can make a clear judgment on it. The actual presence of the Deer Man is left ambiguous. That he looks like a Native deity and speaks lines from the Book of Job suggests some amount of projection is going on, some rising from the depths of the collective unconscious. Beyond that I wouldn’t want to go.

*. The Deer Man is also hard to see. We can see him, but only in the dark or at a distance. Again, this may have been by choice or necessity. The “making of” featurette included in the DVD shows some of the early models for the Deer Man and it was pretty funny. But there’s something truly unsettling about these scary visions that we only see from far away. Distance makes them more disturbing, even though they’re not close enough to be immediately threatening. I was reminded of the vision of Miss Jessel appearing across the lake from the governess in The Innocents. And that was one of the scariest scenes in any movie I’ve seen.

*. Cameron Tremblay, the photographer, has a great eye for darkness. Not painting with shadow so much as digging pits of darkness into the screen. We also get a really impressive long tracking shot with a Steadicam that runs just over two minutes, taking us into and out of a cabin. Setting up the lighting for that must have been a challenge, but it works.
*. Apparently Van Sant’s Elephant was the inspiration for the long take. I told you these were young filmmakers. Tremblay also credits The Social Network for providing a reference for the overall look for the film. That’s one of those links that surprises at first, but when you look into it you see what he means. And seeing is everything.
*. So it’s a film that makes you think of other films, but it’s also quite original both in its subject matter and tone. It doesn’t wrap up neatly but evokes ambiguity, and in doing so it’s genuinely spooky. It’s not The Thing but it borrows the basic premise and takes it in a different direction. Kudos for that.

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