One of horror's most underappreciated qualities is its ability to tell small stories. Horror is a genre that can thrive on low budgets and unknown actors. It’s not expected to make huge profits to justify its own existence. When people talk about the lack of "character-driven dramas," we typically mean tearjerking Oscar-bait, and sure, there is less of that than there used to be. But if you want small-stakes, intimate, character-driven stories, low-budget horror is often where they show up.
I don’t know if there’s anything particularly artful about They Look Like People. It’s an eighty-minute movie, made for about four dollars, starring nobody you’ve ever heard of. Its sensibilities lean bro-y and fratty, which sometimes bothers me. There’s nothing here that telegraphs the intent to commit Art.
Yet it’s a deeply human story about two childhood friends who need each other very much, one of whom happens to be developing schizophrenia. The dignity and empathy with which the illness is portrayed stands out. So does the love between the two men.
That warmth and humanity does not undermine the horror — it makes the horror. They Look Like People is a movie about how people see each other, or fail to see each other, and the violence that becomes possible when we forget the humanity of the people we love.
There are other, grimmer stories about this kind of problem. Goodnight Mommy, for instance, is vastly more disturbing and violent than They Look Like People. It ramps up to unapologetic torture porn and truly profound depravity — real, unforgettable Funny-Games-type shit — and I, for one, wind up fast-forwarding through a lot of it.
The fast-forwarding isn’t because of the torture. It’s because I have a thing about large cockroaches; I used to live in a basement apartment in Queens, and I’d wake up with three-inch waterbugs crawling up my arm toward my face. If you want a cinematic translation of that experience, Goodnight Mommy will provide it. If what I describe here sounds deeply unpleasant, well… yeah. That’s the point. It is.
So, keeping in mind that Goodnight Mommy is an intentionally harrowing experience, here is what happens: Two young twins, Lukas and Elias, are stranded in an isolated country house with their mother, who has just gotten plastic surgery. Her face is still covered in bandages, making her look monstrous. Her behavior is not much better: She snaps, she bullies, she physically attacks one twin, she refuses to set out meals for the other. She keeps commanding Elias “not to talk to his brother,” the one she won’t feed.
She’s a bad mother, and as her behavior grows more extreme, the boys begin to suspect that she is not their mother at all. There’s all sorts of little things that don’t add up: Her eyes are brown at times, where their mother’s eyes were blue. They describe their mother in a guessing game; the woman they’re describing can’t guess her own identity. There are old photos of their mother posing with a not-quite-identical friend.
The horror of watching two young children terrorized by an adult is primal, and that’s before you add giant cockroaches into the equation (though they recur a lot). The movie does a great job of executing that initial setup, which makes it all the more impressive that it gets scarier when you know the actual meaning of these events. If you don’t want to get spoiled, you can skip ahead now.
The woman is their real mother. The twins — or, rather, twin — have been emotionally disturbed and acting out ever since an accident that killed Lukas and left Elias alive. The mother is struggling with her own grief and her son’s emerging mental illness, namely, the fact that he can’t stop seeing and speaking to Lukas. She loses that struggle when Elias ties her up, tortures her in several unspeakable ways, and finally burns her alive.
Again: The torture sequence takes up about half an hour. It’s graphic; it’s brutal; we’re made aware of the precise moment when this woman pisses herself. There’s something slyly feminist in just how awful it is; given our habitually mom-blaming culture, just how much torture are we willing to watch before we forgive this woman for being a shitty mom?
It’s the emotional brutality that is truly chilling, though. Elias is too young, not to mention too sick, to comprehend what he’s doing. His mother, shitty though she might be, loves him, and she’s already lost one son. The forces of grief have made these two unrecognizable to each other. They lose each other by needing each other in the wrong ways, at the wrong moments; they are unwilling to accept each other’s imperfections and limits, and rage at them instead.
Both Elias and his mother become violent in their rage, though only one of them is old enough to be held responsible for that. Children do imitate the adults around them, and even at his worst, Elias is only imitating the cruelty he’s learned from his abusive mom. It’s a brutal moral for a brutal movie: Elias’ mother created her killer, in every sense of the word.
They Look Like People is nowhere near as violent as Goodnight Mommy. Its violence is not graphic, even when it does occur. Nonetheless, it works in some of the same ways; its few, rare incidents of violence are unbearably disturbing because we care about the characters, including the character who is doing harm.
The movie centers on two youngish men, Wyatt and Christian, who have known each other since childhood. It is, Wyatt says, the one relationship he’s had that hasn’t let him down. Both men are reaching the age where they feel they ought to be settled adults, and neither is there yet: Both men are still single, with failed engagements behind them. Neither one is massively successful. In fact, only one of them has a job.
The one with the job is Christian, who overcompensates for his nerdy, bullied past (Wyatt’s therapist recalls Christian only as “that little skinny guy”) with compulsive self-improvement. He works out, and won’t stop telling people he works out. He recites affirmations and Googles self-help articles for every single problem he encounters. He dives headlong into the douchey, fratty masculinity that he thinks a confident and successful guy would demonstrate, and talks about “dominating” at work and “bringing home bitches.” He tells himself “not to be a bitch” on more than one supposed-to-be affirming occasion.
Wyatt’s problems, by comparison, are simple: He’s schizophrenic. He’s nicer, he’s more grounded, he’s less desperately insecure, but he’s also unemployable, and his last relationship ended under concerning circumstances, and every night, he receives calls on a broken cell phone, telling him that demonic entities are taking over the bodies of those close to him, and that he must be prepared to kill them all.
We are fully inside Wyatt’s perspective for these hallucinations, and they are terrifying, but we’re always given reason to doubt what we’re seeing. Wyatt’s illness is given genuine consideration and respect here. He’s not a monstrous, pitiable, out-of-control movie crazy; he’s a guy with a disabling illness, and that illness manifests as intense and unpredictable bouts of fear. This movie isn’t perfect, by any means, but Wyatt feels a lot more real than most fictional portraits of mental illness, in part because the movie is clear that you can have schizophrenia and still not be the most fucked-up person in the room.
Christian is not superior to Wyatt, even if his problems are less stigmatized. Wyatt needs just as much patience to tolerate Christian’s alpha-bro Patrick-Bateman schtick as Christian needs patience to deal with Wyatt’s actual, treatable medical disorder. Christian needs Wyatt – seemingly the one person with whom he can be vulnerable – just as deeply as Wyatt has ever needed Christian. Neither one is broken or evil, and neither one is a savior; they’re two imperfect people, trying to save each other.
The tension of the movie lies largely in how Wyatt’s illness keeps short-circuiting his attempts to manage it. He has a therapist, but his paranoia is so intense that it won’t allow him to take medication. He wants to ask for help, but the disease tells him it’s dangerous to let anyone know what’s happening, so he can only speak to Christian in vague terms about “something scary.”
When Christian does learn that Wyatt is sick, his response is, again, unusually gracious. He just wants to know what his friend is going through, so he can help: “I don’t believe what you believe, but I know you believe it,” he says. The kind of support Wyatt requires is unusual — there’s an understatedly hilarious bit wherein Christian gathers up all the arcane murder weapons Wyatt has been gathering to fight the Demon Horde and gets to work selling them on Craigslist — but it’s not a burden. It’s just what friends do for friends.
Wyatt does not always know that Christian is his friend. He can’t know; the disease won’t let him. There are moments when Wyatt looks at the most reliable person in his life and sees something horrible, and though we all have those moments, Wyatt’s are scarier than most. They Look Like People goes to great lengths to make us believe the love between these two people. It scares us because we know love might not be enough.
The typical impostor plot — the one you see in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Stepford Wives — is about loss of identity. The marginalized Other is conquered and replaced by the dominant culture, or the individual is absorbed into the horde. Still, there is another horror we’re capable of: That of looking someone in the face and simply refusing to see them, because who they are doesn’t line up with what we want. We decide who people are, then punish them for not matching up to the story we tell about them. We grieve the living and tell people they’re gone while they’re still here. We find a thousand ways to call each other strangers: I don’t recognize you; you’re not the person I married; this isn’t you.
We make the recognition of another person’s humanity contingent on our approval, and we lose our own humanity in the process. You can see the results every day on Twitter. You can see them on every battlefield of every war. You can see them in Goodnight Mommy and They Look Like People, too, and if the process seems especially violent, that’s because it is the exact opposite of the care and acceptance families are meant to provide.
It starts small: One thing you can’t forgive, one move you don’t trust, one moment where you fail to recognize each other. The awful truth is that those moments happen in every relationship, and it's always a toss-up as to whether yours will recover. The people we love are only human, and so are we. Terrible things happen when we don’t keep that in mind.
They Look Like People is streaming on Tubi. Goodnight Mommy (2015) is on Tubi as well. There's a new American remake of Goodnight Mommy starring Naomi Watts on Amazon Prime; sounds like fun, but I never want to see those roaches again.
At my other job: I had a long and satisfying discussion with UK feminist and hate researcher Mallory Moore on trans feminism, trans conflict, and how trans mascs and trans fems can make room for each other in a time of endless and brutal online Discourse. You can read Part One of our conversation here, and Part Two right over here, and Part Three, unsurprisingly, over here at the end.
Finally: Thank you for being part of the Halloween Special! As usual, subscriptions are 30% off this month – $3.50 per month instead of $5. I'll go back behind the paywall at the end of the month, and prices will go back to normal, but (especially given that Twitter is about to crap out on us) if you'd like to keep in touch with me, please do: