They Look Like People (2015) Movie Review – 31 Days of Halloween
Suspecting that people are transforming into malevolent shape-shifters, Wyatt flees to New York City to seek out his estranged childhood friend Christian.
It’s the 6th of October and that means it is time for another entry into our 31 Days of Halloween feature. Today we are going to be looking at Perry Blackshear’s psychological horror They Look Like People. This is a movie that I loved from first seeing it back when it was released. They Look Like People features one of the most sympathetic portrayals of mental illness I have seen in a horror. Something that is quite the achievement given the subject matter. Let’s take a look.
I always start these articles by reminding you that if you are participating in an October horror movie a day marathon. Then you can check out our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween 2022 list for inspiration or even our A Tubi 31 Days of Halloween for a whole selection of movies available to watch completely free. You can also just follow along with the reviews we will be releasing every day. These reviews will be sticking to a shorter format as most of these movies are old and there isn’t a great deal I can say about them that hasn’t already been said.
Another Psychological Horror?
I suppose I am in danger of alienating people with some of the movies I have picked so far. A lot of them have been pretty slow and lean heavily towards the psychological horror sub-genre. Pontypool, Resolution and the movie we are looking at today are all similar in pace and tone. It’s impossible not to notice just how divided people can be about movies like this. A lot of people simply don’t enjoy the lack of action and the subtlety of the horror. The entirety of my 31 Days of Halloween list won’t be consisting of Psychological Horror, though. I thought it would be best to group some of these movies together at the start.
They Look Like People is a slow burn horror following the story of a man who believes that the world is days away from being attacked by malevolent creatures. After receiving communications from unknown people warning him of impending doom and monsters hiding in plain sight disguised as people. Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) heads to New York to save his best friend, Christian (Evan Dumouchel), from the attack. But can Wyatt trust Christian or have the creatures got to him first?
Slow and Unsettling
They Look Like People is not the type of movie that will bowl you over with action. It doesn’t have a tremendous amount in the way of scares and even its story is rather thin on the ground. Instead, it wants to get inside your head. The story of two friends meeting up for the first time in years is an endearing one. Christian has been down on his luck in the recent past but has managed to build himself back up. He now has a satisfying job and is hoping to develop a relationship with his boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake).
Wyatt, on the other hand, is something of a mystery. He claims to have started a new job but has randomly showed up in New York with little explanation. We have some hint of a potential history of mental illness but little in the way of exposition.
For much of the first third of the movie, this is a story about two friends reconnecting. It isn’t until Wyatt begins receiving phone calls from a mystery person who warns him about creatures roaming the earth hidden among people and an impending war that the movie begins to feel like a horror. But, even then, this is still a film that is content to move very slowly. Devoting a ton of time to Wyatt and Christian’s friendship as well as Christian’s burgeoning relationship with Mara. They Look Like People wants you to care about its characters and there is a solid chance that you will.
The way They Look Like People succeeds as a horror movie is in its ever present sense of impending doom. With each message received, Wyatt becomes more suspicious of the people around him and more paranoid. He starts to hear messages from people he has only just met and the warnings become more and more severe. With each passing day, he grows increasingly convinced that the world is inhabited by horrific creatures disguised as people and the only thing he cares about is saving Christian.
The movie plays out, predominantly, as a drama but every now and then. Wyatt’s train of thought is interrupted and he hears the sounds of buzzing insects. The apparent fear he feels is palpable and his singular focus is on trying to figure out whether the person he is talking to is a person or a creature wearing their skin. In contrast to Wyatt’s typically kind and passive personality. It puts him in a state of constant turmoil and psychological torment as he tries to figure out who is safe and who isn’t.
It’s brilliant stuff and the use of sound makes for some tremendous moments of unsettling tension. Perry Blackshear does a fantastic job of taking us into Wyatt’s mind and helping us to bathe in the fear that is consuming him. As the terror grows in his mind and the warnings become more and more aggressive. The movie takes us through to a climactic ending that is both fitting for the story and emotionally moving. If this is your type of movie, They Look Like People barely puts a foot wrong.
A Deeper Meaning
They Look Like People presents itself as a horror movie but there is something of a deeper meaning to it. At its core, this is a story about psychosis and delusions. They Look Like People handles the topic of mental illness better than the majority of horror movies that I have seen. This is always something of a touchy subject. I am not sure that horror is exactly the right place to discuss sensitive topics like Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, and similar psychosis based severe illnesses. It’s not really something that people should be making light entertainment out of. And as a sufferer of the latter, it is always a subject that can easily cause frustration. Some movies just don’t handle these topics with enough care. There’s Something Wrong With The Children being a good example of this.
When the subject is handled with care, however. It can be both sympathetic and incredibly effective. Saint Maud is a great example of this and so is They Look Like People. Blackshear takes what is a legitimately difficult topic to present and does so with care and consideration. The characters here have a history with mental illness and yet Blackshear goes out of his way to present the people rather than the illness.
While some may fail to understand the meaning of the events of the movie. This is an extremely effective depiction of the delusions that come with psychosis based disorders and the auditory and visual hallucinations so common with schizophrenia and schizo-affective disorder. When you consider this with regards to what takes place in They Look Like People. It makes the characters all the more sympathetic and the ending all the more poignant.
MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumouchel take centre stage here and both do a fantastic job. Andrews is likable and sympathetic while also managing to really get across the severity of the situation. His subtle facial expressions hint at the turmoil in his mind and when he is tasked with turning the emotion up, he does a really nice job. Dumouchel is similarly great as Christian. He is in a very different position from Wyatt and is mostly asked to respond to the strange behaviour of his friend which he does a great job at. He also has a number of touching moments that show he is a conflicted and troubled person himself.
The chemistry between the pair is very evident and makes them all the more believable as friends. The interactions between the two are often comedic and bring a lot of levity to what is, otherwise, a rather depressing situation. Margaret Drake, as Mara, is equally great and serves as something of a strong female counterweight to the two male leads.
They Look Like People’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio looks gorgeous and is suitably fitting for the movie. It has a perfectly fitting, almost dreamy and surreal, indie movie feel and simply looks great shot after shot. There’s some great use of perspective and close up character shots capture every single emotion and reaction in keen detail. The camerawork can get a little ansty with some shots switching frequently between characters when you feel it should probably just find a spot and stick to it. But it’s nothing majorly noticeable. It just feels a bit anxious at times with the director abandoning shots that probably should have lingered a bit longer.
Sound production is fantastic in parts and poor in others. There was far too much hiss in certain parts and the use of whispering is a real point of annoyance for me. Drake’s voice, in particular, is so difficult to understand when whispering that it really exposed poor mic setup and lacklustre mixing. It does stand out for the positive during some of the more horror related scenes, though.
I always thought Perry Blackshear was going to be a name to look out for. This debut movie was so promising that I was excited to see what their next movie would be. Unfortunately, They Look Like People’s follow up, The Siren, is rather poor. I am a big fan of the concept of mermaids and sirens in horror. Combining that with the director of one of my favourite indie horrors had me seriously excited. The movie is just so dull and ridiculous, though, that it was a major let down. Not to mention how stupid it feels to have Margaret Drake swimming around in a large woolen sweater and nobody thinking that was a little bit strange. When I Consume You was also received poorly. Maybe next time, I guess?
Final Thoughts and Score
They Look Like People is a touching and poignant portrayal of mental illness and the effects of psychosis. It’s also a fantastic drama about two friends reconnecting among difficult circumstances. It is captivating, unsettling, and actually quite scary in parts. It is also extremely slow and rather light on the horror.
Some people are simply going to dislike it for these reasons. If you enjoy action filled horror, this may not be for you; if you aren’t a fan of slow indie horror, you might want to look elsewhere. If, however, you have a high tolerance for slow paced, character driven, drama heavy horror with a message. There aren’t many more effective than They Look Like People. It’s one of my favourite psychological horror movies.