A love letter to Lovecraft and cosmic horror, “Black Mountain Side” reminds this Alaskan of cold winters, paranoia and sleeping, forgotten gods.
“I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the Antarctic—with its vast fossil-hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice-cap—and I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.” -HP Lovecraft, “At The Mountains of Madness”
The far north has a rich culture. Though its mythology isn’t as well-known as others, it’s packed full of some of the richest, most terrifying legends in human history. There’s something about the Arctic that captivates the human imagination, as well as our nightmares. Perhaps it’s the bitter cold, the little to no sunlight or complete lack of civilization for hundreds, sometimes nearly a thousand miles.
Being from Alaska myself, there’s something about being completely isolated while camping in the frozen north that’s quite terrifying. It’s this very real terror that Black Mountain Side (2014) tries to tap into.
Black Mountain Side, written and directed by Nick Szostakiwskyj, is about a group of archeologists in Canada’s Arctic Circle who uncover strange artifacts left behind by early human settlers. The group ends up finding a structure also buried beneath the ice. What that structure is, who made it, and what’s inside are all left a mystery. Its effects on our assembled cast are not, however, as madness and infection pick them off one-by-one.
Black Mountain Side’s cosmic horror inspirations are clear.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is perhaps the most obvious, it being a story about a group of paranoid Antarctic scientists and a shapeshifting alien in their midst. The other, more direct inspiration is HP Lovecraft’s story “At The Mountains of Madness”, a story about an archeology team who discover a horrifying truth lurking within an enormous Antarctic mountain range.
Blended nicely into these fictional inspirations, though, is a dose of reality. Black Mountain Side does extraordinarily well at conveying the psychological effects of cabin fever. The film also brings up a horror lurking under the ice in real life: prehistoric viruses and super-bacteria frozen within the permafrost that, if unleashed, will most likely kill all of us.
Most of the script takes this mixture and makes something unique.
We get a deeply intriguing, depressing psychological horror film where the crux of the conflict stems from a cosmic horror antagonist. This antagonist is one nobody could have predicted going into this film. When I first heard it, I was intrigued. When I first saw it, I was confused and a little shocked. When I finally saw all of it out in the open, I was impressed.
While I liked the script overall, I did have some problems. Unlike The Final Prayer (2013), Black Mountain Side suffers from how vague some plot details are. It’s difficult to talk about the film’s plot without spoiling much of it, but there are certain things that stood out to me as unnecessarily vague or underdeveloped.
An example of this is the infection that’s beginning to spread throughout the camp. Dr. Richard Andervs (Andrew Moxham) explains that what’s afflicting the infected is an invading bacterium that’s turning their cells into ones similar to a cephalopod, the animal class that includes squids and octopi. Why then is our main antagonist, the being infecting them for, most likely, reproduction, not something that resembles a cephalopod?
My only guess is that this is a reference to Lovecraft’s most well-known creation, the Great Old One Cthulhu.
And, while I don’t think it was Szostakiwskyj’s intention, I believe that the inclusion of these ‘cephalopod’ lines simply adds to the general stereotypical belief that cosmic horror simply equates to an octopus monster. It’s a stereotype I know lots of cosmic horror fans want to move away from, but things like that only make it more difficult. Besides my issues pertaining to the stereotypical, these lines don’t affect the story at all and can be completely removed.
All that said, my issues with the script, like the ones above, are subjective. In fact, I can already hear my internal Lovecraft fan calling me stupid for not understanding all of Black Mountain Side.
I may have wanted more, and I’m certain most general audiences would indeed want more, but I know that plenty of cosmic horror fans will be content with the vagueness of the script. After all, Lovecraft and those that came after him were never ones who felt the need to elaborate.
An ancient being’s intentions are alien and unknown. And if the audience knows only as much as the human characters do, that’s not a problem with the script. It’s just the way it would be.
On the technical side, I was pleasantly surprised.
Most times when I sit down to watch a movie like Black Mountain Side, I’m immediately struck with a myriad of technical issues. A movie shot at the wrong frames-per-second, maybe shots using cheaper-than-normal or out of date cameras, poor sound, no lighting, and things of that nature. So, when Black Mountain Side opened on a pretty well framed wide shot with crisp, clean audio, I was shocked.
Black Mountain Side is how a low-budget, independent feature should look, sound, and feel. Szostakiwskyj clearly had a vision and utilized his probably meager budget in all the best ways possible. Minimal but effective lighting, little to no music, a small but effective location, and a phenomenal blend of CGI and practical effects work.
The work and technique in Black Mountain Side can be shown in one particular scene: the impromptu amputation.
To elaborate, during the scene I was expecting a cut in the editing before the limb severing began. Nope. The reason I believed they’d cut is because I thought it was his actual arm. Instead, it was an incredibly realistic prosthetic that was so detailed, my eyes bugged out of my head when I saw the axe blade hit it.
Even though the script was interesting, save for issues I had personally, and the technical prowess shown was a breath of fresh air, the acting was what really took me out of the experience more than any other aspect.
Flat delivery, explosive over-acting and unnatural cadence were present for about half the cast. The worst offender was by far Michael Dickson, who played Professor Piers Olsen in the film. Some lines of his were well performed, but most times I was twinging at his delivery. If the cast had been stronger and their performances were more impactful, it would have helped elevate this movie in ways I can’t even imagine.
Overall, what we have here is an interesting movie with some flaws.
Not every movie can be near perfect, but when it comes to what’s good or bad, Black Mountain Side is a defining line. For a more nuanced rating, I’d say that this is a film for fans of cosmic horror.
General horror fans will probably find this boring, but there’s enough madness and talk of ancient gods to keep a tentacle-loving fan of Lovecraft interested.