Thursday, 21 May 2020

Black Mountain

A Sense Of Mountain Tension

Black Mountain 
(aka Black Mountain Side)
Canada 2014 Directed by Nick Szostakiwskyj
101 Films DVD Region 2

So when I went to FrightFest back in August 2018, I was surprised to find that, unlike other years I’d been, they were actually giving away free DVDs to people... and not just those fortunate individuals who could afford a weekend pass. Standard people like myself who could only afford a finite number of tickets for the weekend were also allowed copies. Now, being as I am a fairly cynical audience member, I figured the DVDs in question were probably excess stocks of things the distributors wanted to get rid of due to poor sales and so this probably meant that the films could be somewhat questionable in their quality. I figured that there was a good chance that many of the films on offer were really terrible movies but, there was also a chance that some of them were hidden gems that just hadn’t found their audience or weren’t properly marketed, resulting in slow sales. Such was my reasoning and so I did what any rational man would when being offered free stuff... I went home with eleven free new horror DVDs that weekend.

So, a few weeks later I got around to watching one of these with the title of Black Mountain (although it looks like in most other countries this was released as Black Mountain Side). Well, whatever it’s called, let me just say that this one is definitely a movie I got lucky with... a true hidden gem. I just hope some of the other freebies I snagged are as good as this one.

The film as described on the box says it’s like “The Thing meets Fortitude” and I really can’t comment on that because I haven’t seen anything called Fortitude. What I will say though is that I would agree with at least half of that statement... to my mind it’s a bit like a cross between John Carpenter’s The Thing and The VVitch (reviewed here). Okay, it actually predates The VVitch by a couple of years but, trust me, there were definitely some scenes in here which made me recall those ‘Black Philip’ moments.

Just like various versions of The Thing From Another World, the film focuses on an isolated group of workers, in this case archaeologists, in a snowy region. Like Carpenter’s iteration of the classic, this film features an all male cast and the way some of the scenes are put together which introduce us to various characters and the way in which they interact are very much Thing-like in nature.  It’s a fine ensemble cast, actually, with very few characters who are the main protagonist for very long. That being said, we do kind of see the film through the eyes of Professor Piers Olsen, played by Michael Dickson, for a lot of the time... in as much as he is arriving at the base the same time as the audience and learning what these people are about in the same way as we do.

The film does the typical thing where we have some pretty nice shots of the base small in a mid shot with a lot of snow around it, plus various other snowbound shots, to give us a sense of isolation. Now, it has to be said that there is a work force of people from a nearby Indian reservation to help the crew out but, as you’ll see when you watch it, they aren’t in the film for long and our ‘heroes’, such as they are, are very quickly abandoned and cut off from their supply shipments in a way that... well it’s kinda credible if you imagine lots of stuff is going on in other places simultaneous to the events in this picture, I guess. Although nothing much is said about it.

In addition to the constant shots of snowy wastelands with man made structures used to punctuate scenes and transitions, another trick the director uses is to throw up black screen with a random, progressive date on it every now and again to lend it an almost documentary kind of credibility. Alfred Hitchcock used the exact same technique (minus black screen) to open his celebrated Psycho and it really serves Nick Szostakiwskyj and his actors well here.

The plot set up is very simple. Olsen has been sent to these snowy wastes as an expert archaeologist because the team have found a half buried structure with various artefacts showing up where and, as importantly, when (once carbon dated) they shouldn’t. It could be a big story and proof that a certain type of culture and people were on the planet much sooner than believed and so the team want to get this thing sorted as soon as possible before getting shipped back home for Christmas. It’s a historical mystery and, of course, as any horror film fan will tell you... historical mystery means big trouble for any of the main cast who might as well be wearing signs around their necks saying ‘kill me now’ for the rest of the movie.

And it’s kinda cool, actually.

There’s no music during a lot of it (I only noticed a bit of a musical cue once but I’m sure there must have been a couple) and this serves the muffled, slow burn atmosphere rather well. In addition to The Thing, there’s also a touch of Cthulhu thrown in for good measure... cephalopods do get a mention, for example and, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the writer/director was a fan of H. P. Lovecraft’s tale At The Mountains Of Madness, at some point in his life.

Now, it does show in places that the movie is low budget. You will see the lack of money needed in a few shots here and there but what the cast and crew manage to achieve for the money is absolutely incredible. It’s a very old, creeping kind of suspense that we have enveloping the majority of the film in its chill shroud and, when it does threaten to go over the top in some places, with the introduction of a ‘presence’ at the base, the director manages to reel it back in sufficiently, at least for this impressed audience member, that he never quite ruins the atmosphere of the piece. Certain factors involved here would be budgetary, of course... you don’t show in close up and detail something which won’t work under the light of intense scrutiny but this is something genre movie makers have been doing for years and, if done right as it is here, it actually helps make the finished product better. Atmosphere is pretty much everything in this movie but it certainly plays that card well.

The ending maybe lets the film down just a little and I suspect it’s a staging issue. I’m not going to  give away anything here but there’s a neat little visual punchline concerning one of the characters which I felt maybe needed to be played up more dramatically to give it some weight, rather than leave it as a long shot. I think that would have given more of a punch to what is, after all, a not bad piece of irony to finish the film with. Little bit of a missed opportunity there, I thought but, it doesn’t detract at all from the high quality of the rest of the film.

And that’s all I’m saying about this one. If you are into horror movies then Black Mountain is definitely something I would recommend to all and sundry. I would like to have seen this one on a big screen but, thanks to FirghtFest freebies, I’m lucky enough to be seeing it at all. It’s very cheap on Amazon right now so maybe give this one a go if snowbound horror is your bag.

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