It seems as though the faster technology advances, the more we become estranged from nature. Black Mountain Side is the latest in a trend of horror films (Backcountry, White Raven, The Interior) that examine how setting ourselves apart from nature can have terrifying results.
Horror fans familiar with John Carpenter’s The Thing will immediately spot its influence upon writer/director Nick Szostakiwskyj’s first feature: Black Mountain Side takes place in an area on the border between the Yukon and Northwest Territories of western Canada, frigid wilderness known as the Taiga Cordillera (movie exteriors were shot in Lumby, British Columbia). As anyone familiar with Canadian winters can tell you, when there’s a heavy snowfall, the silence is deafening. Wisely, Szostakinwskyj doesn’t saddle the setting of the film with extraneous music geared to exact an emotional response from the viewer. He leaves that job up to the actors.
The ensemble cast in Black Mountain Side is excellent and we are introduced to them via some wonderfully crafted exposition. Professor Olsen, the head of Archeology at the University of Toronto has come to a research station where a group of seven scientists is studying ancient artifacts. This is how we find out who everyone is and exactly what it is they are doing in this place. The members of this group–Jensen, Månro, Giles, Andervs, McNaughton, Wells, Ramis–have an easy camaraderie, and even seem bored with the lack of adventure in this isolated area.
As Olsen learns about the topography of the place and the local Native population (the Dogrib or Tłı̨chǫ peoples) that is helping the group complete its task, so does the viewer. We also find out about the freezing temperatures (-50 F) and limited sunlight of the area, which immediately indicate that we might need to be concerned about the safety and sanity of these folks.
As slow-burn horror movies, go, Black Mountain Side is masterful in parceling out information and character development bit by bit so that nothing feels forced or out of place. Repeated establishing shots from outside of the camp give the feeling of an unchanging, unsympathetic environment, while title cards indicate the slow, inexorable passing of days, beginning with November 1.
A series of seemingly banal events take place–discussions of Mesoamerican pottery, items needed for the upcoming supply drop, what some of the team members are planning to do over the Christmas holidays–and the tension increases by the tiniest of increments. When the first genuinely odd thing takes place, it doesn’t bode well for the future of these characters. Unlike The Thing, however, Black Mountain Side isn’t a practical effects extravaganza, nor does it ramp up the pace of events so that the film becomes an action movie full of grotesque set pieces.
In fact, when one of the film’s first big reveals takes place, it’s so subtle you might not even realize what has happened. The visual fulfillment of what begins as a potential auditory hallucination is equally underplayed. Some viewers might even find it mildly comical, but as Black Mountain Side progresses, that imagery becomes more disturbing, not less. By not succumbing to the need some filmmakers have to explain every strange occurrence, and inserting some well-placed gore effects, Szostakiwskyj turns Black Mountain Side into something viscerally scary.
The camera work is also exceptional, a mixture of naturalistic and voyeuristic Steadicam shots that, along with static, well-composed framing, are simple yet profoundly effective. Although a lot of directors would use a spooky score to make things even more horrific, there is no music in Black Mountain Side. The sound design is subtle and utterly chilling, consisting of the sound of snow and wind along with one unsettling vocal technique that is unforgettable.
Black Mountain Side also conveys the idea that some things are best left alone. The quest to gain knowledge without first considering the consequences can be frightening, not to mention deadly.
Black Mountain Side will be available on DVD and VOD on January 26.