A scientific outpost isolated in the frozen waste…an ancient artifact, unearthed and exposed to the light of day for the first time in millennia…a powerful force, free and wild and beyond good and evil, manipulating the neuroses and insanities of the humans around it for its own end. Sound familiar? Yet Nick Szostakiwskyj’s Black Mountain Side is more than a retread of The Thing (John Carpenter’s version, natch). It’s a fine specimen of “cosmic horror” that replaces paranoia with outright madness.
Shane Twerdun and Michael Dickson lead a team of archaeologists stationed in the Yukon’s Taiga Cordillera who uncover a long-buried structure of apparent Mesoamerican origin. The odd thing about that is, of course, that the Canadian Arctic is too far north to uncover anything of Mesoamerican origin. Shortly thereafter, the work team flees in the dead of night, the outside world stops responding to radio signals, and a crew member comes down with a strange illness. After that, things get really bad.
Szostakiwskyj soon proves a master of the cinematic environment, giving the camp’s relatively spread-out environs a sense of cloying claustrophobia. The winter wilderness is so engrossing you just might find your local temperature slowly lowering as you watch the film. He also has a keen command of light and shadow, as evidenced by several nighttime exteriors. The effects are quite good, definitely better than one might expect from a low-budget production. The pacing is a bit of a slow burn, but the suspense is so thick you can eat it with a fork.
While the film doesn’t shy away from the visceral, the true horror comes not from the gore but from creeping, existential terror. The puny human mind isn’t built to comprehend the nature of reality, and in the presence of the truly cosmic, it snaps like a toothpick. Indeed, Black Mountain Side could be one of the most effective portrayals of the Lovecraftian ethos yet committed to film–the influence is obvious, even if the C-word (“Cthulhu”) is never uttered. Your mileage may vary when it comes to Szostakiwskyj’s visual interpretation of this awesome force: to me, it was wrong enough to work, but some audiences might find it comical.
Regardless, the “human vs. human” is as important as “human vs. cosmic” when it comes to the film’s conflicts. Twerdun and Dickson head a fine ensemble cast, although some of the supporting players occasionally get lost in the shuffle. Very little backstory comes into play, so most of the character development stems from the chemistry between the actors. You can readily believe that many of the crew members have worked together for years–and Dickson, playing a government-mandated outsider, stands appropriately aloof from them. Standout supporting players include Marc Anthony Williams, Carl Toftfelt, and Nathaniel Gordon as the voice of…well…a voice, at any rate.
Black Mountain Side is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in 2014–the perfect combination of story, location and atmosphere, and sure to please horror fans of all stripes. Don’t let it pass you by.
Sunday, November 30, 3:45 PM and 6:45 PM, Carlton Cinema