Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People achieves the rare feat of treating a character’s mental illness–or at least the specter of it–as a source of horror and yet treating it seriously and with sympathy and insight. It’s an excellent evocation of what it feels like to be hanging onto the “normal” world by your fingernails, when it takes so much visceral effort to go the unnatural route of disregarding your own perceptions, when the meaning of your life’s story seems to stand on a knife’s edge.
Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Dumouchel) have been friends for years, but they’ve been separated just long enough that the newest parts of their lives are unfamiliar to each other: Wyatt doesn’t really know how much Christian has tried to reinvent himself as an aggressive, “all I do is win” guy following his breakup, and Christian doesn’t know that Wyatt has been spiraling into paranoid psychosis, believing that many of the people around him are demons … and more are on the way. Wyatt is self-aware enough to know that he needs help, but he’s still teetering on the edge. His connection with Christian–realistic, funny, nuanced, and unusually tender–is his one remaining tether to reality.
One of the best things about the movie is that Christian is also struggling, even if it’s less obvious: the line between “sane” and “not sane” isn’t a clear-cut division with the latter menacing the former. We’ve just got people here with various forms of damage. We see that Christian is an almost preternaturally attentive, compassionate person, one who struggles with insecurity but has a real gift for kind gestures and defusing awkward social situations–but he’s constantly pushing himself to be harder, to “dominate.” He listens to bizarre motivational tapes that turn out to have been recorded for him by his ex-fiancée. This is the only movie I can think of where when you find out a lot of people think a character is an asshole, it simultaneously makes sense and feels like a gut-punch of a twist.
Christian’s collapse is less severe than Wyatt’s, and it’s paced differently, but they’ve both come together at a painful, pivotal time–and that could save them or doom them. But really, the overarching plot of the movie is less important than its well-handled characterization and its atmosphere, including an exquisite tension that becomes almost unbearable in the last few minutes.
They Look Like People is streaming on Shudder.