★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
There are elements of a great survival horror tale here, but the end product is inconsistent in this half-thawed stew of madness and isolation.
Directed by Nick Szostakiwskyj
A group of scientists has unearthed a Meso-American (read… Central American) artifacts and what appears to be the emerging tip of a temple in a northern British Columbia outpost. It’s a mystery to be sure, quite possibly an archaeological discovery with real history changing implications. But wouldn’t you know it, winter is setting in, and the days are getting shorter. The mystery begins to reveal an ugly side as well, as slowly the research crew starts exhibiting signs of madness and disfiguring illness.
Left stranded and blocked from communication, the men go stir crazy. Some of the men are visited upon by a malevolent spirit, who offers suggestions of treachery, sowing seeds of paranoia and suicide on an already on-edge group. The scientists forge on with their studies, and eventually, come to the conclusion that the temple is the source of a mind and body altering bacterial strain, but it may just be too late to save themselves from each other.
The movie has a solid basis story from Nick Szostakiwskyj. It also features some beautiful cinematography from lensman Cameron Tremblay. I was inspired to watch this movie because of Hammer of the Gods, their next movie they did together that was shown at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, which I liked very much. When I realized that it would be a while before that film got released for streaming, I figured I’d see if Black Mountainside would be a good introduction for moviegoers to get that flavor. And… a little yes, and a little no.
Alas, their first outing is pretty uneven. Just because the story idea is strong, doesn’t mean that the script and dialogue are on point. The timeline seems odd, in that many days go by, but there doesn’t seem to be an urgency to get help. (I think I saw a snowmobile that could have been handy.) The discovery of the temple is a complete MacGuffin, but it isn’t as integral to the story as, say, The Ruins. The Temple could have been a scarier element, but I suspect the budget for the film only allowed for a small chunk of the ruins to be excavated.
The acting comes and goes, where at times it really feels like the actors are reading lines. Or, sometimes they mumble and are difficult to understand. The actors sometimes struggled to explain the scientific findings without seeming like memorized dialogue.. and it did not help that they would repeat themselves. Edit, please! Yes, I get that it’s Meso-American, in Canada, but one good tight pass at that exposition dump would have helped the pace of the movie. And, unfortunately, in the moments of highest drama, it felt as if the actors are shouting, but not really tapping into their emotional reserves. Yelling and pounding on things doesn’t make it particularly resonant.
Where the acting does really work are in the individual studies of the isolation, when the camera focuses in on the internal madness. Then, the actors each seem to find their marks. The boredom, weariness, and wild-eyed schizophrenia show up in those quiet moments. Michael Dickson’s archaeologist Professor Olsen would seem to be the center of the story, and his presence commands attention whenever he’s on screen. I also thought that Andrew Moxham’s Dr. Andervs was the most natural performance of the lot, but he doesn’t get a whole lot of the meatier crazy stuff to play with. Many of the actors are veteran supporting players from Vancouver’s burgeoning television studio system, so this a chance for many of them to get more dialogue in, which made this a great opportunity for them.
Tremblay, as he did in Hammer of the Gods, does a stellar job of capturing both the beauty and the intimidating vastness of the Canadian wilderness. It’s just so… big… there are some moments where the camera pulls back to show the men in the distance, and it really feels remote and lonely. Something that caught my attention though, was that despite the fact that this was supposed to be in frigid conditions, the characters only occasionally seemed uncomfortable. The cast also had the terrible habit of entering into a building and not closing the door behind them, which was a sign that maybe this wasn’t the coldest place on the planet. Hey, do you live in a barn?
This movie owes a huge debt to The Thing. The all-male cast of researchers is isolated in a cold region and forced into battles of trust. That much is quite effective. You believe the psychological torment they are going through. Where Black Mountain Side falls well short of the Carpenter classic is in the execution of the effects of the temple. One man starts going through a parasitic infestation, and in reaction to something horrible moving under his skin, the crew amputates his arm with an axe. They really could have used a Tom Savini or a Rob Bottin here. The arm looked too small and obviously rubbery. It seems like they abandoned the idea of continuing the pathogen route, in favor of the psychological trauma, as he was the only one who really went through that disfigurement.
What became more threatening was the presence of a deer-god evil spirit. It spoke in subwoofer rumbling tones, and it sounded wonderfully ominous… and then you saw the deer-god. It looked like bad taxidermy. Having seen The Ritual I know you can pull off a terrifying deer-creature. This looked like a dopey deer standing on its hind legs and was cringeworthy. The bulk of the middle of the film was riddled with unconvincing practical effects, that seemed like they had the kernel of a great idea but an imperfect understanding of how to pull off the scares.
To say that this is a film without merits though would be a disservice. The beginning of the film that introduces the characters and the scenario really works. The end of the movie also is very effective with a terrific payoff of an element that is foreshadowed in the first act. And, it’s a famous trope which I won’t spoil, but it is one of those classic moves that you hint at in many movies, and then spring it on the audience once they’ve forgotten about it. You can see the potential in Szostakiwskyj and Tremblay in this outing. They learned from this movie and took many of its better elements (The stuff under the skin, the isolation in the woods) to better effect in their next go-round.
Black Mountain Side is not rated, but would probably be a light R, for violence and a bunch of F-bombs. It streams for free if you have an Amazon Prime account. It’s also available for rent on Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.