Horror is both the best and the worst genre to explore mental health.
It exists as stories about everything that scares us: whether they be monsters, serial killers, psycho exes, or more cerebral subjects like losing your mind. Mental health is a scary subject – our psychology, emotional control, and our sense of reality are what anchor us in this world.
But what if the world suddenly changed? What if you were the only person who notices? Have you lost your mind? The 2015 film, They Look Like People, takes this well-worn premise and, instead of making a hoary, insulting, and demeaning narrative in which mental illness is used as a punching bag, approaches the topic in a grounded and mature fashion while still delivering some effective scares.
Wyatt, played by MacLeod Andrews, is convinced that a battle for the planet is imminent, and that people have been replaced by alien replicas. Wyatt thinks he is one of the few chosen to fight these monsters, monsters that no one else can see. After breaking off connections with his old life, including a girlfriend that he thinks has been replaced, Wyatt visits his childhood friend, Christian, played by Evan Dumouchel . At first, it’s not clear why Wyatt seeks Christian out, but then They Look Like People pulls its masterstroke: Wyatt, despite the changes he made in his life, still isn’t certain that the things he is experiencing is real.
What follows is the tension between these two mindsets for Wyatt. He believes that the war and replicas are real enough for him to access supplies for the impending disaster – including weapons, both chemical and physical. Yet his time with Christian, himself at a loose end after his own long-term relationship broke down and dealing with his own mental health struggles in the wake of painful life changes, has the grounded feel of two friends reconnecting rather than a proto-war movie that it initially seems to promise to be.
They Look Like People uses its’ genre premise as a platform to tell a much more intimate story of male friendship, of mental illness, of the fear of intimacy that comes when you are experiencing something that you feel nobody else could understand. Wyatt goes to Christian because he is the last person on Earth that makes him feel safe, and if the war is real, he’s the only person he wants to protect. And if it isn’t real – Christian might be the only person who can protect him. Whether he is right or not, he is vulnerable, and They Look Like People wants us to remember that.
It’s the ambiguity of the threat that makes the film work as well as it does; the nebulousness of what Wyatt fears turns this from just a Take-Shelter-style question about reality, to a powerful film about male bonding, and the trickiness of confiding in each other emotionally. They Look Like People that makes it easy to relate and care about the two leads, and puts real work into an intimate male-male relationship – something that we don’t often see outside the realms of the Grand Issues movie.
Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this about mental illness. Hollywood generally prefers takes that demonize and scapegoat people in the midst of suffering, turning them into paper-thin villains instead of the victims they so often are. But They Look Like People wants to change that, and remind us of the vulnerability that comes with the worst times in our lives – and the chance for connection that vulnerability can offer.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Taylor Holmes)