The world of indie horror is something I’ve been championing for a while now, as any readers will recall, but like the macro universe of moviemaking, the indie horror scene is full of duds. For every Darling or Southbound, there are at least a hundred genuine pieces of crap. All you have to do is look at the horror listings on Netflix to see that. Now, I understand that many people watch bad movies (of any genre) with their MST3K hats on and blithely rip the bad writing, the cheap FX, the amateur-hour acting – I’ve never been that kind of viewer. Not that I’m taking the high road here – bad movies offend me, sometimes anger me when I realize I invested my time in something that just wasn’t worth it.
On the latter, I recently tried watching Into The Forest, a recent kinda-post-apocalyptic movie starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood, but halfway through I realized it wasn’t going to get any better, so I started skipping ahead in five minute increments, stopping to see where I could be wrong. That feeling never came. It left me exasperated, knowing that I also couldn’t spend any time reviewing it, since that would have been unfair on the movie. Digression aside, my point being that if someone can spend the budget on great cameras, a musical score, and actors like Page and Wood, it seems counterproductive to use all those resources to produce something unwatchable. Into The Forest was not bad, it was simply boring and uninteresting.
I’ve been unlucky enough to choose some movies to watch that I haven’t cared for. Check out my reviews of The Neon Demon, and The Mind’s Eye for examples of that. I’ll add to this list Black Mountain Side, an indie horror that I stumbled on about a week ago and finally watched yesterday.
Like my initial forays into the world of indie horror, none of the names associated with this movie meant anything to me, but a quick trip to IMDB told me some stuff. Black Mountain Side was written and directed by Nick Szostakiwskyj , whose previous moviework has been mostly boom operator and sound mixer. So good for him for trying to evolve into writer/director. Unfortunately, if he goes on to a new career in the movie biz, if he’s going to be remembered for Black Mountain Side, it’ll be for all the wrong reasons. Here’s one – the premise itself:
When a team of scientists living in a remote, frozen territory uncover an ancient artifact buried deep in the ground, their attempts to uncover it and unravel its mysteries lead to a heightened level of anxiety and paranoia within the team that threatens to destroy them all.
So yeah, it’s another version of John Carpenter’s The Thing. I reviewed the movie Harbinger Down, another Thing knock off, and ripped it badly. I am a huge fan of The Thing, and Harbinger Down offended me beyond reason, but I won’t do the same with Black Mountain Side, purely because of the effect of budget. If Black Mountain Side cost any more than $50,000 I would be astonished, but that doesn’t get Szostakiwskyj off the hook here at all. My personal feeling about moviemaking is that if you have integrity, you will attempt to produce something that honestly represents the best of what you’re capable of doing – that means knowing your capabilities and limitations. Black Mountain Side is a wildly overreaching effort that simply looks and feels like a few buddies wanted to make their version of The Thing because they loved it so much, and that’s it. That honesty of moviemaking that I need to feel is nowhere to be found in this production. Like Harbinger Down, it’s just a moviemaker spending money on trying to emulate a much, much better movie. If there’s a point in doing all this work for that reason alone, it’s lost on me. I had the exact same thoughts after watching Joe Begos The Mind’s Eye, a movie that plays like a poor sequel to David Cronenberg’s Scanners.
I say overreaching because the ambition to redo The Thing still requires some kind of budget to play around with. The Thing isn’t just about a bunch of guys arguing about stuff, and if Szostakiwskyj only got that from watching the Carpenter movie, he has no business making movies. In The Thing, the environment plays as much a role in that movie’s greatness as Rob Bottin’s legendary effects work. In Black Mountain Side, there is nothing about the environment that feels authentic to any degree. Filmed in a cabin resort in British Columbia, the movie is meant to take place during a time when travel to and from the station is impossible, yet I never felt at any time like that was the case. There’s only what appears to be six or seven inches of snow on the ground, almost none on the trees – and how remote and northern is this place when it’s surrounded by trees anyway? The ancient artifact that they’re digging up just looks like it’s sitting on a piece of flat land – the “dig site” is simply a patch of soil about 7’ x 7’. As well as the story choice, these kind of details are lazy – they pull you out of the experience. It’s like Stephen King has said in the past, once you see the zipper running down the monster’s back, you’re no longer invested in the movie. One of the bigger issues are the characters themselves. They’re all written with the same voice, and that voice doesn’t strike me as being the voice of guys who spent any time in college, much less come out the other end with advanced scientific degrees; they simply come off as hourly loggers who spend most of the time uttering inane, uninteresting dialogue, while smoking. Jesus Christ, do these guys smoke. I actually found this to be hilarious. Especially in the first half of the movie, it’s literally the only characteristic they possess. If you made a drinking game out of how many times they light up, you’d be drunk by the midpoint. The sad truth here is that Szostakiwskyj has no other thought about how to create interesting people, and that’s nothing to do with budget, but all to do with writing ability.
Black Mountain Side is also a terrific example of why a musical score is important, especially in the world of indie horror. It has absolutely no music whatsoever, at any time, and Szostakiwskyj doesn’t have the talent to simply create mood. The internal photography is bland, the writing is poor, the characters all blend together, the lighting is boring. I could totally see how even a cheaply thrown together score would have added something, but there’s just no flavor in this production whatsoever. To give some credit, though, the movie isn’t as straight a rip off as Harbinger Down was. Szostakiwskyj adds a supernatural aspect to it that makes it a little different, but the concept is poorly realized on film, arrives too late in the plot, and unintentionally humourous. The embodiment of evil here is named “Deer God” in the credits, and I’ll let you work it out for yourself.
The bottom line here is that sometimes concept alone is not worth following through, especially when it comes to severe budgetary restrictions. Szostakiwskyj should have spent more time in spreadsheets to realize what money he had could have been better used on a much less ambitious project.