Tuesday 30 August 2016

Black Mountain Side (Canada 2014: Dir Nick Szostakiwskyj)

The creepy and beguiling Black Mountain Side has now officially achieved movie 'sleeper status'; it was made back in 2014, spent most of 2015 doing the US festival circuit, only finally getting a UK home release in the second part of 2016 (no theatrical run sadly), with the distributors mysteriously dropping 'Side' from the DVD issue, which I'm choosing to ignore. If a director as talented as the early twenty-something Nick Szostakiwskyj (who also wrote and co-produced the film) thinks Black Mountain Side's ok for a title, that's good enough for me.

This intense snowbound psychological brain bender has been described as a love letter to John Carpenter's 1982 movie The Thing, which is fair; as well as sharing a wintry backdrop - Canada's British Colombia - the film also features an all male cast of archaeologists who are driven collectively crazy following the discovery of an ancient shrine in the mountains. But there are other valid comparisons - the steadicam gliding over the snow, tracking the characters as their screws start to loosen, recalls the menacing camera sweeps of 1980's The Shining, and there's a touch of Sam Raimi's 1981 splatterfest The Evil Dead in the claustrophobic wood cabin environments shared by the men.

The cast of Black Mountain Side uttering a collective "WTF?"
Black Mountain Side takes a while to set up its horror and body count. The introduction of an expert on ancient structures, brought in to the group to help solve the mystery of the shrine, is the point at which the story takes off. But as much as we do get a rather Lovecraftian explanation involving ancient bacteria and a cult of self-mutilation, we remain as confused as the rest of the team about what is real and what is hallucination, particularly when the focal point of the force - a strange elk-like creature
who may or may not have a glowing nose - is finally revealed.

Strange stuff indeed and as well as some pin-sharp acting performances the film's sound design is crucial here - there's no score, just the endless silence of deep snowfall and the ticks and creaks of the cabins, so when the sharp bursts of violence occur among the men it's all the more shocking. The director has described the shoot as very intense. He hired some out of season holiday cabins deep in the forest - undoubtedly charming in summer but bleak and inhospitable in the depths of winter - with the cast sleeping where they were filming, helping to create a hugely oppressive atmosphere. That the film refuses to deliver a happy ending is probably a given - that it manages to create a mounting sense of tension despite the increasingly unusual events on screen makes me recommend it to you wholeheartedly. A film to watch more than once, certainly.

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