Sunday, September 18, 2016

Black Mountain Side (2014)

An archaeological camp in the Great White North of Canada has made a discovery that could be much more important than anyone could have expected. Not only do the archaeologists find pottery that looks rather Mesoamerican in style in the completely wrong part of the continent, predating anything culturally probable, but also what might be only the upper part of a mysterious stone structure - a mysterious stone structure dating from a time before humans actually had a settled lifestyle.

Things start to be going off the rails at about the same time when (one supposes eminent) archaeologist Professor Piers Olsen (Michael Dickson) arrives to corroborate the findings up this point. Things start, as they so often do, with a sacrificed cat, see the local helpers of the dig not leave for home but instead wander northwards into an arctic frost they’ll most probably not be able to survive, find all radio contact impossible (it’d be a rather short film otherwise) and deteriorate further until there’s self-mutilation, suicide, murder, and visions of a deep-voiced godhood with a deer head.

As anyone who even vaguely knows me will realize, Nick Szostakiwskyj’s Black Mountain Side pushes a lot of my narrative and thematic buttons, what with it being a film about a bunch of people isolated in a cold place, the cosmicist as well as folkloric bent to its horror, the archaeology angle, and so on, and so forth. Yet still I didn’t really warm to the film (sorry), never really felt much dread or horror watching it. I didn’t end up actively disliking the film but rather with the feeling that it misses a chance or two too many.

Among the film’s main failings is the nearly complete lack of characterisation, with characters so completely interchangeable, I really couldn’t find any reason to remember their names. There are very few discernible character traits on display from anyone apart from stuff like “is the doctor”, making the characters’ increasing mental dislocation feel rather weightless. It’s also difficult to see if someone starts acting particularly strange (apart from visions of deer gods, obviously) when a film doesn’t establish a base line regarding what’s normal for him. And yes, it’s “him”, for there’s not a single female character in the film, which is Lovecraftian in all the wrong ways, and just completely perplexing in a film made in this century.

Szostakiwskyj’s direction style is a bit problematic to my eyes too. Nearly every scene consists of long, static shots by a mostly immobile camera, from time to time – if we’re lucky – perhaps one cut-away to another static shot and then back again. While this sort of thing can add to the tension by giving the impression of the camera throwing a clinically distanced eye on the characters, it does also make a tale slowly told like this one feel even slower. In interior scenes often involving quite a few characters at once, it’s not very interesting to look at either, and rather than increase the tension, it helps deflate it. This effect is made worse in more than a few scenes by a tendency to awkwardly stuff the actors into the frame, positioning them in deeply unnatural ways that’ll really remind everyone watching this is indeed an indie horror movie.

On the other hand, this too distanced direction style does reap some fruits from time to time because most of Black Mountain Side’s violence and strangeness is filmed in the same flat manner, providing it at times with an unexpectedly disquieting effect, and once the camera starts moving, it feels rather surprising and exciting. I’d still argue that making eighty percent of your film look bland so that the remaining twenty of it can be more effective is not a terribly economical way to go.

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