When you set out to make a horror film with deep running themes of isolation, battling horrendous winter elements, and Man v. Nature, there is no denying the correlations. You can talk about Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ as a deft observation on how sometimes “cabin fever” can get the best of us on those dark and lonely winter nights. One might also reference Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ as the ultimate showdown of men at odds with each other as well as unseen evil forces. There is no rule book that says you can’t tackle those aforementioned themes and combine the two films into a new generation of slow burn horror. ‘Black Mountain Side’ may have achieved just that.
Set in the sparsely populated Yukon Territory in the deep north of Canada, ‘Black Mountain Side’ quickly establishes, with some stunning aerial photography, a vacant expanse of snow covered land as far as the cinema eye can see. We are quickly introduced to a small camp along the high rising mountains. The camp houses a small group of archaeologists. They are intelligent men, but in between the research and excavation, they allow their guards to go down and indulge in lots of mindless gambling and drinking. For an archaeologist, time is your friend, but it can also be your enemy.
The team is given a bit of a jolt in their existence when Dr. Olsen (Michael Dickson) is brought into the camp to help out with a new discovery. He is met with well wishes from everyone as Myles (Shane Twerdun), the natural leader of the group, introduces him to the team. Myles is mostly hoping that the experience of Dr. Olsen can shed some light onto what the team has already been working on. A large stone structure has been excavated on the property; it seems to be something not of this era, or quite possibly, not of this world. Olsen seems all the more intrigued by its discovery, but the isolation of cold nights and frostbitten days also seem to take its toll on him. Olsen’s higher education would generally lend a hypothesis on this mysterious object quite quickly, but the combination of the isolation and some strange and dark occurrences makes his prognosis a bit hazy. As the film’s second act begins to unfurl, death follows, and it seems that all of these strange occurrences are breeding from the mysterious structure.
From here on out, ‘Black Mountain Side’ borrows a few notes from its snow-covered cinematic predecessors and begins to unleash a methodically crafted and finely nuanced physiological horror film all its own. As the men all feel the wrath of what this structure can unleash on their minds and souls, we are brought in so intimately that the tension is at times almost unbearable. Simple sounds like crunching snow and the howls of wind are the orchestra that make up the film’s underscore. Writer/Director Nick Szostakiwskyj hones into fine Kubrick-Carpenter territory with this film, and balances the two craftsmen’s styles with very deft storytelling skill. For a film set in such an expansive location, Szostakiwskyj’s direction effortlessly infuses a claustrophobic feeling throughout. The cinematography by Cameron Tremblay is some of the best atmospheric camera work in a horror film in recent memory. Tremblay always uses natural source lighting throughout the film, the blacks are there to hide what we can’t see, and each time we get a glimpse of light into them, it amps the tension up even more. Dickson and Twerdun are class performers, in a sense dancing a fine line in their roles between wanting to be on each other’s sides as well at each other’s throats.
Combining all of these elements is what makes a great film, and although ‘Black Mountain Side’ will surely be compared to ‘The Shining’ or ‘The Thing’, it’s the haunted soul of those two films that provide just the skeleton. ‘Black Mountain Side’ puts some meat on those bones.