Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here.
The Taiga Cordillera is a big and lonely place along the top half of Canada. The northernmost part is even sparser with a population that caps off under a hundred souls, but it’s here where perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the century has been discovered. At least that’s what the on-site team believes and the reason why Peter Olsen (Michael Dickson) has arrived at this godforsaken place by helicopter. They’ve uncovered what looks to be the top of a stone monument belonging to a culture with no previous record of being in this part of the world.
Olsen and the team debate the validity of the find, play poker and make plans for the fame in their future, but their celebration is short-lived. The group’s pet cat is murdered and splayed out like a sacrifice before the stone, they lose radio contact with civilization and the local workers, superstitious and terrified, flee into the wintry darkness towards guaranteed death. Madness and mistrust infect the remaining men, and then? Then things go really bad.
Black Mountain Side is a beautifully-shot, creepy love letter to John Carpenter’s The Thing that finds its own identity amid the paranoia and bloodletting. Its budgetary limitations occasionally squelch its ambitions, but the terror remains atmospheric and effective to the final moments.
With only five hours of sunlight per day the team is already making slight progress even before the indigenous locals scamper into the frozen wasteland, but rather than pick up the shovels and dusters themselves the eight men left behind become understandably concerned. No way out, a dwindling food supply and now there are voices calling out to them from the woods? Their worries are magnified when it becomes clear that something is infecting them – less clear is whether the infection is biological, psychological or mythological.
Writer/director Nick Szostakiwskyj’s feature debut doesn’t include or need a traditional monster as the unknown and the promise of madness and death are frightening enough. He allows us ample time to settle in with these men, to see their existing camaraderie and friction, before letting the horror seep into their bodies and minds. We follow along as they grow suspicious of each other and play the same mind games they do in attempting to determine who’s still sane and who’s on the edge of taking an axe to their own wrist.
All of this unfolds against a gorgeously photographed landscape of trees and cabins slowly suffocating beneath a falling snow. The icy precipitation, like dirt shoveled over a grave, threatens to bury them all along with this prehistoric, non-denominational evil. Cameron Tremblay’s camera works in glorious tandem with Szostakiwskyj’s scenes of silence as we move around the cabin exteriors, sampling the terror-tinged air being involuntarily inhaled by the men and wondering what’s watching them from just out of view.
Some elements are less successful though and can seemingly be traced back to the film’s limited budget. For one thing we hardly see any of the stone monument responsible for turning this into a nightmare excavation. Of course it’s what is unearthed along with the find that leads to the story, but it’s a bit like making a movie about a mummy’s tomb only to wait outside until the mummy came calling. The cast, while generally strong, has a few weak links as well who occasionally cut the tension off at the knees with their flat line delivery. There’s also a particular practical effect – one I don’t believe even the filmmakers’ think looks “realistic” – that works for the dream-like madness the men are experiencing, but it might not pass muster for more literal-minded (and demanding) viewers.
Black Mountain Side is a far better homage to The Thing than the recent Blood Glacier even if it doesn’t have creatures slithering around, but while I’m contractually obligated to mention that comparison I’m also happy to report that the film survives as its own creation. A small ensemble, an isolated locale and an unknown threat are classic horror ingredients, and the recipe comes together here to a satisfying conclusion.
The Upside: Frequently atmospheric and tense; haunting cinematography; mostly solid ensemble acting
The Downside: Some dialogue scenes last too long and deflate the tension; inconsistent effects; budget woes
On the Side: The majority of Nick Szostakiwskyj’s IMDB credits are as a boom operator.