Originally published on May 14, 2016. They Look Like People is now available on Amazon Prime’s instant streaming service.

Overview: A man deals with several struggles in his life while his friend struggles with schizophrenic delusions and clinical paranoia. 2015; Not Rated; 80 minutes.

Wyatt/Christian: At first there’s a choppy, muted, sloppy casualness to They Look Like People – an unobtrusive, mumblecore-esque distance kept by the story as it watches old friends Christian (Evan Dumouchel) and Wyatt’s (MacLeod Andrews) unexpected reunion. Director Perry Blackshear opens his first feature film with choppy takes, disjointed voiceovers, conversational fragments. The first half of They Look Like People is made of carefully carved and cautiously arranged pieces. If Christian’s self-help interests and pickup-artist methods of communicating with women were arranged as a straight-forward narrative, the audience might perceive his insecure approach to adult life as something pathetic, or comedic, or even loathsome. But, contextualized against one another and the small indicators of his past and current circumstances, they communicate a character who is real and sympathetic, a young adult struggling to stay afloat professionally and socially in a city where the pressure to do so is a constant. Similarly, Wyatt’s intense delusions and hallucinations presented in a more direct narrative line would be rendered as standard horror fare, devalued of their authenticity and applied in service to a plot structure. But in They Look Like People, the upsetting noises, menacing phone calls, and dark visions are episodic, unpredictable, and much more reflective of the real horror of mental disorder.

The Order of Disorder: As the film progresses, it isn’t the severity of Wyatt’s visions and paranoia that intensifies; rather, the horror element of this neuro-thriller manifests from his personal trouble rooting into the lives of others. The nervousness and tension isn’t in service of the horrific reality built by his schizophrenia, but rather in how that condition might influence him to act toward those around him. At times, Christian seems like the most likely inevitable victim, but Christian’s sincere commitment to his friend begins to endanger his friend and hopeful romantic pursuit Mara (Margaret Ying Drake) and her protective friend Sandy (Elena Greenlee). It’s commendable that none of these characters are denied their own agency – none of the four ever serve as narrative props or characterization tools toward any of the other characters. Rather, all four exist as substantial and believable people, each with strikingly complex motivations, each always an arm’s length away from the dangers of untreated or poorly treated mental illness. Once this tension and concern sets in, the film takes more time, observes for longer takes with steadier frames, allows for more traceable story transitions. In a way, They Look Like People manages to unfold into a horror film by being an exceptionally compassionate one. That’s why the film’s almost unbearable climax hits with unexpected emotional heft, with a dangerous act of blind selflessness also serving as Christian’s self-redemption. Here, all of the patience of the film, its actors, and its director pay off in unexpected measure, both as an experience of horror cinema and complex, character-driven drama.

Overall: Several recent horror films (Oculus and The Babadook being the most obvious examples) have exhibited a concern for the issue of mental health and its treatment in the modern world, but They Look Like People looks at the issue with no metaphoric obscurity. Because of this direct line of vision, it is sympathetic, unnerving, and informative, a combination that makes it almost essential filmmaking.

Grade: B+