Black Mountain Side, the newest feature from Canadian writer/director/producer Nick Szostakiwskyj, closed out this year’s Blood in the Snow film festival with a packed audience on Sunday evening, delivering a suspenseful and gorgeously photographed psychological thriller that is sure to linger in the minds of viewers for days to come. Not unlike John Carpenter’s The Thing – a comparison that will likely haunt it forever – the film is a brilliant exercise in tension that explores questions of isolation and growing madness that emerge when man comes face-to-face with that which is beyond our scope of experience or understanding. This was the most unsettling and genuinely frightening film at the festival this year, with horror that felt undeniably real despite the somewhat fantastic and surreal “monster” that begins to surface as the story progresses.
A small team of archaeological researchers working within the northern mountains of Canada make a startling discovery when they unearth the tip of a structure that is buried deep beneath the ice. With the use of carbon dating, they place the structure at over ten thousand years old – an impossible figure that raises several questions about its nature and origin. Eventually strange occurrences begin to happen at their camp with frequently gruesome results, and their line of communication with the outside world fails entirely, leaving them with no hope for rescue as the growing tensions at the camp give way to acts of unspeakable horror.
Black Mountain Side is a low-budget effort that looks and feels like a much bigger film, thanks to an excellent script, strong performances from everyone involved, and some truly stunning cinematography (for which the film took home a “Bloodies” festival award). Szostakiwskyj takes full advantage of a gorgeous location in the snowy mountains of Northern Canada, using long takes and a wide shooting style to draw the viewer in to this increasingly isolated world – an effect that is further heightened by the complete absence of a musical score. Using a rather minimalistic storytelling approach, the young filmmaker shows us just enough to plant the seeds of terror in most cases, coming through with a couple of shocking gore moments that are well-placed for maximum effect. This style works to build an obscure sense of dread, and proves most effective when exploring the fragile and vulnerable nature of our own psyche, faltering only slightly in the final act as the director attempts to expand on the bizarre supernatural force behind the curtain.
Drawing heavily from Carpenter’s film as inspiration, as well as the works of horror author H.P. Lovecraft, Black Mountain Side certainly leaves us with plenty of intriguing questions by the end. As is the case in many other incarnations of this type of story, the most frightening pieces remain those instances where characters are controlled and contorted by a force they don’t understand, committing horrid acts towards themselves or those around them. It is these moments that linger and make us question not just our own subjectivity, but the reliability of those sitting next to us, who may or may not be who they appear on the outside.