[Fantasia '14 Review] ‘Black Mountain Side’ Is a Heavy Dose of Existential Horror

Picture 1

Black Mountain Side is the debut feature from Calgary native Nick Szostakiwskyj. While it’s sure to draw (much deserved) comparisons to The Thing, this Canadian paranoid horror flick is a beast all its own. It’s a psycho-thriller that taps into Native mythology, archaic archaeology, and even the traditional parlor mystery to establish a strong feeling of existential anxiety that practically drips off the screen, leaving a mess all over your lap.

Shot in the remote Monashee Mountains of British Columbia, Black Mountain Side follows a group of rough-and-tumble researchers as they uncover a mysterious stone structure buried in the snow. The structure bears some archaic engravings that the crew, led by Myles (Shane Twerdun), attempt to decipher. Some mysteries are better left buried, however. As they further delve into the structure’s origins, things at camp turn sour. Communications go out, local workers hired to dig around the structure suddenly disappear, and the men are stricken with a terrible illness.

Did they unleash ancient bacteria that was preserved under the snow? Or is the structure a harbinger of something much more wicked? Once the plot shifts its sights to full-blown paranoia, the audience’s brains begin to reel right along with the research crew. Being an audience member of Black Mountain Side is like being thrown in the middle of a nervous breakdown miles from civilization. The men gradually turn against each other, urged on by the shared voice in their heads. When these suspicions amongst the camp begin to surface, especially at night, Szostakiwskyj and cinematographer Cameron Tremblay employ some genuinely creepy visuals. Without spoiling anything, there’s a “manifestation” of what’s causing the mens’ deterioration, and it’s awesomely eerie thing to behold.

Before the horror elements kick in, we get to spend a lot of quality time with the researchers, who are a essentially a group of blue-collar academics. There’s a great love-hate dynamic amongst the men, the type of camaraderie that’s spawned out of being cooped up in close quarters. Establishing the characters early on is a wise choice because once the shit hits the fan, there’s no time to do anything except hang on to your butts. The whole all-male cast is fantastic, with Twerdun being the stand-out as he desperately grasps to maintain his sanity and crew.

There’s some great gore in the film and its graphic violence goes beyond perfunctory. There’s no emotionless killing, Szostakiwskyj makes the murder and mayhem effective to the point of emotional. This deep into the film, we don’t want these gritty scientists killing each other, dammit.

Szostakiwskyj’s script is crafty and strong, with some moments that are downright frightening. Towards the final act, the film does drag its feet a small bit. I wished the moments leading up to its climax were streamlined a bit more to keep the suspenseful momentum up. That one criticism aside, Black Mountain Side is an exceptional, well-crafted debut. The visceral impact of this shrewd slice of existential horror makes Szostakiwskyj a filmmaker to keep on the radar.

Black Mountain Side had its world premiere at Fantasia Festival. Here’s hoping it makes it way to a large audience ASAP.

Official Score