Black Mountain Side (2016)

Black Mountain Side is a 2016 independent Canadian film that was written, directed, and produced by newcomer Nick Szostakiwskyj. The movie follows a team of archaeologists and researchers as they uncover an impossibly old structure way the hell up there in rural northern Canada. As the work continues, their supplies and connection to any sort of civilization start to dwindle, and strange things start happening. The trailer is below, and then check out our review, but if you haven't seen it yet, there are spoilers. Plan accordingly. Or don't. We're not here to tell you how to live your life.  

 
 

Jack: Black Mountain Side. I went into this blind. I had no idea what the movie was about, if people thought it was good, what the sub-genre was supposed to be, none of that shit.

Jake: Which is probably in large part because the movie just came out on vod and didn’t enjoy a big cinematic release. Or because it’s Canadian. Either way. This one piqued my interest with its name (get the Led out) and a trailer that popped up a while back while it was making low-key ripples through the festival circuit. It’s imdb page has it listed as a 2014 film, although we couldn’t get our hands on it till 2016. Talk about a long time coming.

Jack: I really dug the cold open. With one exception. I thought that the stark introduction to these guys up in the middle of fucking nowhere (discussed below) set the tone really well. The exception was the cue cards. I really hated the cue cards that they used to do it. Seriously, why the fuck would you use cue cards like that?

Jake: To pay homage to The Shining? I’m not as affected by these nearly as much as you so clearly are, but that was honestly the first thing I thought of at the beginning of this film. Huge, sweeping mountain vistas with some healthy camera-tilt. It felt like a tip of a cap to me... More on that to come.

Jack: I guess that the cue cards really didn’t take too much away from the movie, because it starts establishing how it wants you to feel almost immediately. Isolated. And it does it well. The movie uses a very wide shot of the camp where the characters reside, which is itself located in the far north of Canada. The shot feels barren. Just a few buildings in the middle of the frozen fucking north.

Jake: Couldn’t agree more. The same shot of camp is used throughout the film, and it’s a consistent reminder that there is nothing happening around the characters. All these guys really have is their work, which just so happens to be in the Taiga Cordillera. As such they can’t do much other than play poker and drink bombers of beer because the nights are long and cold enough to make your blood freeze.

 
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Jack: Which I suppose leads mildly well into the plot, but before we get there, I’ve got one more meta thing to say (okay, a shitload more, but one right here). It’s Women in Horror Month, and what did we do? We went ahead and reviewed a movie featuring exactly zero women. Jesus, good work, us. Although I guess the movie had a female EP, so that’s something?

Jake: Well there’s a couple things: first, we just found about about Women in Horror Month despite it being something of which we should have been aware; second, our schedule is such that we don’t post these suckers until a few weeks after we’ve watched them; third, we are just a couple of goddamned idiots, as I’m sure our readers are abundantly aware.

Jack: Fair points all around. Bottom line, check out Women in Horror Month, then come back. We’ll wait. Back? Good. So plot. A research team has discovered a very old mesoamerican-style artifact about 4,300 miles north of where history says it should be. The team consists of a crew of different specialists ranging from archeologists, to a doctor, to a guy who’s job is apparently just to use the goddamned radio poorly.

Jake: The radio guy has the most important job of all, man. He is the only connection to the outside world and coordinator of their supply drops, which apparently consist entirely of milk, eggs and cigarettes.

Jack: All the real staples. It’s a fairly big cast, and the movie offers very little in the way of character introductions or backstories. In one way it’s nice, because there is a refreshing lack of exposition, but at the same time I kind of wish they had done something a little differently because even now, I have no fucking idea who any of the characters are. I know one is named Giles and one is named McNaughten. I know their jobs, and I vaguely know what they look like. Except one, I know who one was. I’m not sure that this movie has a main character, but if it does, it’s probably the professor, Piers Olsen, who comes up to audit their excavation in order to report back and maybe give them some more money. That guy looks exactly like Peter Dinklage crossed with William H. Macy.

 
Go ahead, disagree. We dare you.

Go ahead, disagree. We dare you.

 

Jake: Agreed. I pretty much still only know guys by the job they held at the site. The William H. Dinklage clone is probably the main character, yes. But honestly, it really doesn’t even matter in this one. The story is communicated in such a way that it never felt frustrating in its lack of character development.

Jack: True, but it did make it difficult to follow what was happening at the beginning. I guess there were a bunch of native workers who all left as soon as the relic got a little more uncovered. You never see any of the native workers, and so it took me a long time to figure out that when the characters were talking about the workers leaving, they didn’t mean any of the characters to whom we have been introduced. They meant the people you have almost literally never seen on screen. It was confusing.

Jake: We never actually see how large the workforce is for the site, but we are told there is a native american reservation some 90 miles away that they have been employing laborers from. I’ll agree that it’s confusing at the beginning. We are just sort of thrust into this location and have to pick up clues as to what is going on from the dialogue between the actors. I thought it was a really good way to handle the story, and when Olsen gets flown in to perform the audit, you pretty much just ride his coattails and learn about the situation at the same speed he does.

Jack: The movie is slow to build. There’s really no action to speak of for about the first half of the film. Just the isolating establishing shots. It keeps coming back to that same wide shot of the facility. Unchanging. Alone in the cold and the snow. The feeling is emphasized by what I think is my favorite thing about the movie: there is no music to speak of throughout. I don’t mean no recognizable songs, and I don’t even mean no score. There is literally nothing playing behind any of the scenes. It’s creepy.

Jake: There is no noise whatsoever. All you get is the crunch of boots in snow and wind in trees. It really complements the setting and helps build nature into a pretty menacing character, itself. It also sets things up nicely for when there is action because you become more sensitive to any noises you do hear.

 
Silence huh? Sounds like my last set at open-mike night down at the Radisson ya nah'meen? Wow that was an abrupt transition into hackiness.

Silence huh? Sounds like my last set at open-mike night down at the Radisson ya nah'meen? Wow that was an abrupt transition into hackiness.

 

Jack: And when the action does start, it starts abruptly and there is no going back. One of the guys (I don’t know his name) has been sick for awhile, and the scene starts with the professor awakening violently to alarms. 

Jake: It is really frenetic and scary. The camera follows him as he rushes through camp to the main cabin, where the other guys are holding the sick guy down and the doctor is trying to sedate him.

Jack: The dude’s arm is straight fucked. It’s bulging out like that under-skin robot-thing from the Matrix, or those other under-skin things that Agent Smith got when Neo dove into him for some reason, or those scarabs from the Brendan Fraser version of The Mummy that make that guy go all mumps-y. Anyway you slice it, it’s not good. Full disclosure though, I didn’t notice exactly what was going on with his arm on my first viewing. The action is so abrupt and dark and chaotic that I couldn’t make it out and had to rewind and really look at what I was seeing. Even without knowing exactly what was happening though, it was still pretty intense and terrifying.

 
"Mumps-y" huh? You sure you didn't go to med school?

"Mumps-y" huh? You sure you didn't go to med school?

 

Jake: It was super intense. Even if this movie had been fairly action-oriented prior to that scene, it would have been gnarly. After roughly a half hour of silent, stifling Canadian wilderness and slow-burn plot building revolving around the mystery of what this artifact is, what do you get? You get 4 guys holding a dude down on a table and another guy taking an axe and chopping his arm off then cauterizing the wound with a fireplace shovel. It was graphic, and the lack of explanation to that point in the film makes it all the more unsettling.

Jack: And that’s when the movie’s main plot kicks in. Something is happening to the crew that started after they unearthed the artifact. It feels like the movie is trying to be pretty vague about what exactly is happening. You see crew member after crew member, one by one, start to go crazy, start hearing a voice and seeing figures off in the distance. The first guy gets the bug thing under his arm. The next one goes bananas and Aaron Ralston’s his own arm with a knife. Things only escalate from there.

Jake: You could actually argue that it starts with the crop of workers who were unearthing the site. There is a scene early in the film where one of the crew’s pet cat is found at the site slaughtered as if in sacrifice. This happens shortly before the crew leaves unannounced  in the middle of the night. You think it might be native american superstition based on the dialogue you get, but when their tracks are found in the snow heading further north into the wilderness (the reservation is south), you know something is amiss. It would have been difficult to make it back anyway given the distance and the cold, which is explained as being down to fifty below zero.

Jack: I do kind of wish the movie had left more to the imagination. It really seems like that was its intent. But the way things play out really limits the possibilities. What I’m saying is this: it seems like they wanted to leave it ambiguous as to whether the goings-on were cabin fever; a virus stirred up by unearthing the relic; or a legitimate supernatural deer-god  that seems very difficult to please. But the fact that the craziness played out one by one over the crew members, and in the same sequence of hearing the deer-god’s voice and then going nuts really felt like it precluded at least the cabin fever option. I wasn't joking about the deer-god either. It's literally a god that appears as some sort of anthropomorphic deer. For reals.

Jake: I don’t think those other options can be eliminated entirely, but if I have to break things down, which is apparently my fucking job on this site, I think signs point pretty firmly to the “monster” in this film being a previously dormant virus which they unearthed through their excavation. That being said, I do think there is room for interpretation as to what’s actually going on even when viewing things through that lens. For example, the doctor does an autopsy on one of the crew who committed suicide and comes to the conclusion that he may have been turning into a squid, or giving birth to squids, or maybe had a particularly aggressive form of squid cancer? He’s equal parts sincere and unbelievable, which makes it hard to figure out where we’re supposed to land.

 
No you misunderstood, he just meant that the guy was so fed up with the cold that he was going to try out for the travelling circus or whatever this show was about.

No you misunderstood, he just meant that the guy was so fed up with the cold that he was going to try out for the travelling circus or whatever this show was about.

 

Jack: You make a good point. I did really like the little touches like that. They aren’t shoved down your throat or brought up obviously again and again, just little seeds of doubt that make you question things.

Jake: Now, sitting here and saying I think these guys were turning into fuckin’ Squiddly Diddly is something I’m just not prepared to do. I mean on the one hand viruses may have changed that much in the last 50,000 years, but on the other I think there’s just too much crazy shit going on to settle on that. For that reason I think the movie does a pretty damn fine job of leaving things open-ended without feeling cheap. The hallucinations and illness could have been results of something affecting the brain. Hell, the explanation of the cephalopod cells would actually make more sense if these guys were having their brains turned to mush by the virus. Add to that the isolation and strange deer-god related psychosis, and you’ve got a recipe for one hell of a closing sequence.  

Jack: Speaking of which, I have to give the movie some creativity points for the inclusion of a literal deer-god. Say what you will about it, but I doubt you’ve ever seen another movie with a deer-god as an antagonist. That being said, I did have a bit of an issue with the deer-god’s voice. It felt like an exact rip-off of the voice and method of overtaking people from the Doctor Who episodes The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Then fuck you, just trust me, I’m right.

Jake: It also sounds like Sauron from Lord of The Rings, so we can really pull shit from wherever we damn well please, can’t we Jack?

Jack: I think you’ll find that more of our readership can relate to the 2006 mid-season episode of Doctor Who than to the pretentious arthouse movie no one saw to which you just referred.

Jake: Your cultural touchstones are so fucked up I can’t even begin to fathom it. After weeks of no contact with the outside world due to a radio issue they believe is on the other end (more evidence of potential psychosis, bacterially instigated or otherwise), the crew is low on supplies, lower on sanity, and beginning to die off. This is where the movie really hits hard. There are a few instances of extremely grisly implied violence, and with able minded crew dwindling, you can feel just how dire the situation is.

 
Scary as that movie was, it cannot begin to match the terror that this other instance of "low sanity" instilled within the chosen many.

Scary as that movie was, it cannot begin to match the terror that this other instance of "low sanity" instilled within the chosen many.

 

Jack: Now I want to take a step back here, because I feel like I’ve been shitting on many aspects of this movie, when in actuality this is one of the best horror movies in quite some time. I think my interest in and focus on the movie made me notice a lot more about what I wish was done better because this movie had the potential to be my favorite horror movie of all time. I loved the feeling of isolation the movie instills and maintains without feeling forced. I loved the slow build to the crazy action that never feels gratuitous. I loved the minimalist sound that only heightened the terror.

Jake: Whoa there buddy. Those are some strong words… However, in a weird way, I kind of know what you mean. This isn’t close to my favorite horror movie of all time or anything like that, but I really enjoyed it, and my intense level of focus on what was happening and attempt to piece things together actually brought a few things that I didn’t love to the forefront in the process. It took a while after the credits rolled for this one to really sink in.

Jack: The movie will certainly be compared to John Carpenter’s The Thing because of the nature of scientific research in a frozen setting. I think that the more apt description though, mind you, is to the Blair Witch Project. The way the isolation builds as the resources dwindle, which makes the characters reluctantly start to turn on one-another, is very reminiscent of a certain Mikey kicking a certain fucker into a certain creek. Then there’s also the aspect of never explicitly saying just what in the fuck is actually happening in the movie. In this movie the closest you get is the deer-god voice and shots. In Blair Witch there are noises, body parts in bandannas, and that scene of Mikey standing in the corner at the very end. Both are very effective.

Jake: I mentioned it earlier, but I saw a lot of inspiration from The Shining in Black Mountain Side. That’s not to say comparisons to The Thing would be unfounded, because there are definite similarities. What I’m saying is that this is a vastly different film. Like The Shining, it is heavily psychological. The already discussed opening sequence and cue cards are one apparent tip of the cap. Another is the scene where one of the characters is throwing a tennis ball against a wall, just like in The Shining. Finally, the main climax of the movie literally follows a fully crazed crew member as he trudges around camp with a weapon, intent on killing anyone and everyone around (which he mostly succeeds at doing). The length of the shot and chaos is more than slightly reminiscent of Jack Torrance hunting through the Overlook Hotel and its adjacent, wintery maze.

Jack: Well, that’s the end of my notes, so to quote the best line of the movie, “I would like to go home now.”


RATINGS (1-10): 

For 1, think of how Gordon Ramsey would rate back-sass:

 
 

For 10, think of how you would rate Black Mountain Side:

 
 

STORY:

Jack: 8 - This is a really unique story that could conceivably go in any number of directions. I think if the filmmakers could have found a way to make it seem less like one of the possibilities is the most obvious and likely answer, this may have gotten a ten.

Jake: 8 - I really enjoyed the level of ambiguity to the story in this film. You are left with just enough a sense of wonder as to what you have just seen that you want to watch it again to see what else you can pick up on. I also think the way in which you as the viewer are thrown into the setting adds to its level of realism. You don’t know what the hell is going on, and that’s ok.

WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION

Jack: 9 - Like I said before, the cold open sets the tone perfectly. The silence of the movie is staggering, which makes the non-silence all the more effective. My eyes were glued to the screen from start to finish, and I felt the isolation right along with the characters even if I didn’t know their names.

Jake: 8 - This had me from the jump. The setting and backstory are fascinating, and there is a real sense of mystery as to what is going on. This is as slow-burn as slow-burns get, and I often found myself getting really antsy while waiting for the next bit of information to fill in another piece to the puzzle. My one detraction is that, while I enjoyed the length of some of the shots, the acting was not quite strong enough to pull it through some of the scenes.

SCARE-FACTOR:

Jack: 7 - the isolation of the movie is just unreal. You never feel comforted. When things do start to go wrong, the movie makes you feel like your own safety nets are gone. The deer-god voice and the deer-god itself didn’t do that much for me scare-wise but they were sparse, and every other scene is terrifying and they all build off of one another.

Jake: 8.5 - We all have things that push our buttons. As a lover of the outdoors, this movie does a superb job of using that setting to create a menacing, overbearing antagonist out of nature that engulfs the characters over the course of the movie. Sprinkle in some science and psychological elements, and you have a recipe for creeping Jake the fuck out.

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):

Jack: 7 - This movie is more effective because of what it doesn’t show you. The arm-squirmies scene was fantastic. It was well-done but it didn’t drag on for so long that it lost its effect. The weakest element by far was the voice.

Jake: 7 - This was not a large-budget film. It simply didn’t need a lot of effects.With that being said, I found the practical effects believable and made me squirm. Some of the sound effects felt slightly off, and the deer-god didn’t do it for me which is a goddamn shame given its prevalence over the final third.

OVERALL:

Jack: 8 - I loved this movie, despite my quibbles above. But hey, don’t we all lash out at the things to which we are closest? I plan and look forward to many repeated viewings.

Jake: 7.75 - I really enjoyed this movie, and hope it might become more widely known now that it is available to the public. Here’s to more from those who worked on this thing, because they absolutely deserve praise for what they accomplished.