They Look Like People (dir. Perry Blackshear, 2015): The best horror movies always have something deeper than the masked man with the knife that’s meant to frighten the audience. Something else must exist at the film’s periphery, the primordial and instinctual horror for which the masked man with the knife stands in as a metaphor. In They Look Like People, the horror is internal. Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) is in a bad place. He gets phone calls late at night from a sinister voice telling him to stay out of cities, to abandon his friends, to prepare for an impending war. He meets his old friend, Christian (Evan Dumouchel), in New York City and stays with him for a few days. The war between the remaining humans and the shapeshifters is coming, the voice tells Wyatt, and there is nothing he can do to stop it. He can only fight.
The story of They Look Like People is simple and straightforward. We wonder for a while whether Wyatt’s mental health is deteriorating or the malevolent demons are out there and whether he’ll have the strength to confront himself. Similarly, Christian, once a shy pushover, has rebranded himself as a dominating go-getter, a guy constantly hitting the gym and giving himself prep talks to convince himself he’s oozing with confidence. But when he’s faced with the grim reality of who he is after losing his job and being berated by his coworkers, he hits rock bottom. Their arcs are nice and tidy. Both travel to the edge to find out who they are, and both are frightening. Christian discovers that the confidence he has afforded himself is a sham everyone sees through. Wyatt battles in his head whether the shapeshifters are real. As the voice reminds him, he can trust no one, because anyone could be one of the demons.
But lurking beneath the surface-level horror of not being able to trust your own mind is the stigma of mental illness itself. The parallel of the ominous voice on the phone and Christian’s self-help soliloquy that he constantly listens to demonstrate the power the internalization of a message, whether invited or intrusive, can have. Even the title, They Look Like People, refers not only to the supposed shapeshifters who have taken on human form, but to the seemingly normal-looking everyday guys like Wyatt harboring an unseen battle in their heads. There is the implicit threat of the other, of the strange mumbling man on the subway who is not like the rest of us. That is a crucial part of what drives Wyatt to the breaking point: his seeming inability to trust anyone, and that that distrust is reciprocated by those who find his behavior frightening and erratic. When Christian, being a good friend, makes the daring choice to trust Wyatt with his life, the psychic wound becomes clear, and Wyatt is saved.
The film is the child of newcomer Perry Blackshear, who wrote, directed, edited, and produced it. He employs a minimalist and repetitive style. Several sequences are repeated, such as Christian’s trips on the subway, his goings-on in the office, or his working out at the gym accompanied by the voice in his ears. Wyatt has several dreams where the silhouette of what we think is a person lies in bed next to them before a gruesome transformation begins to take place. In the basement he repeatedly tests his weapons and has near-encounters with the creatures in the dark. There is almost no music, only the voices, ambient noise, and sinister swirling of flies that appears whenever a creature makes its presence known. It’s just you and the inside of your head.