Finding A Totem To Oblivion: A Review of Black Mountain Side

Writer and director Nick Szostakiwskyj plays the long game in his horror film Black Mountain Side.

It begins, and ends, in the northern most part of the Taiga Cordillera: a place situated on the border between the Yukon and the North West Territories. Only a few hundred people live in the area, its summers are short and cool, and its winters are quite long. In the film itself, there is a lot of wilderness, the considerable presence of forests, mountains, and silence. Certainly the trope of Canada being a large and wide open icy terrain is not lost in this film.

Black Mountain Side‘s story focuses on a team of archaeologists at a site in the Cordillera. The snow and wide expanse of their surroundings always seems to threaten swallowing them up along with their small outpost. Nature is not their friend. It is a patient Other: an enemy that slowly whittles away any warmth, or light that they can get. Even so, there are marks of human inhabitation that even the territory can’t completely erase.

This is the puzzle that Szostakiwskyj initially poses: how can an ancient and long established structure with what seem to be very southern Mesoamerican symbols exist buried in the earth and snow of the far north? How can architecture dating from the Ice Age even exist? These are academic questions that become tinged with anxiety, paranoia, then outright fear, and blood.

This structure, which the team never succeeds in unearthing completely, is far from home if it is Mesoamerican. Even the local workers that the team utilize seem to be the aboriginal Dogrib: from the Dene First Nations. Yet this is only a supposition, however, as one of the archaeologists points out that these workers, employed from an arrangement with their band council, speak the language of Dogrib. Certainly, it may be this people, or their ancestors, that created the marker stones around that area to keep it in memory: though the fact that it may indicate a hunting ground for deer speaks volumes later on in the film.

In fact, the ground is a space that screams isolation so loudly that there is almost absolute quiet. As the site’s communications with other outposts ceases, as sickness spreads, and tensions crystallize into infighting and fracture into a voice that isn’t there and murder there is no soundtrack. Black Mountain Side, for a film that coincidentally shares a title with an instrumental piece, has no music. Instead, it is a movie that eats chronology, the days and months that the archaeological team degenerates from playing cards together into fear and horror, and the sounds of their deaths and the ending of their selves.

There have been a few other reviews on this film. Some compare it to John Carpenter’s The Thing or even H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. I would even say that the film is mildly reminiscent of a 2010 movie called The Corridor: where a group of friends go up to a cabin and become exposed to some force that changes them and drives them murderously insane. Certainly, the scenes in Black Mountain Side with one of the archaeologists have something squirming in his skin, the revelation of a structure that may have existed before human civilization, and even the team doctor’s diagnosis that some of the crew has been infected with a cephalopod-like organism definitely leans towards Carpenter and Lovecraft before him.

In fact, the gruesome apparition of the deer god that the latter survivors of the team keep seeing and hearing — what with his comments on the cosmos and actually looking at reality — definitely harken back to a kind of Lovecraftian cosmicism: in which the universe is inherently meaningless and filled only with malignant and indifferent entities of considerable power in which human beings are but small insects by comparison.

But it’s also possible that Black Mountain Side is another kind of story: and it is in what it doesn’t say, or say entirely, that might determine just what kind of horror film this really is. For example, the viewer never really knows if anything the archaeological crew is seeing is actually empirically true. Perhaps the structure they are excavating released an ancient disease. Maybe it is a larger and more complex version of the stone markers warning others in the area of malevolent spirits or forces. The structure might even be a tomb containing a vast evil. Or maybe there are technological problems and the crew are truly mass-hallucinating from a possible lack of sustenance and extreme isolation.

Yet there are other elements at play here that is hard to put a finger on. It’s notable that everyone in the archaeological team is male. It kind of makes me, as a viewer, wonder just why that is the case. Certainly older films and stories often had an all-male cast (such as At The Mountains Of Madness), though sometimes this works against the characters in this movie: as they are a little harder to relate to beyond basic empathy and it’s easy to lose track of who they are. It’s also notable that there is only one non-Caucasian member of the crew as well — a Black man — who ends up going on a shooting spree towards the end of the film (though, granted, two other team members go berserk long before he does). As paranoia takes him, he doesn’t trust the leader of the group and says he has seen his “sociopathic kind” before. This could be seen as him distrusting a certain personality-type under duress, but it is worth further thought. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that the team makes a point of stating that their aboriginal workers are “superstitious” and immediately come to the conclusion that they ran away from the site due to those beliefs.

There is something really compelling about looking at what happens to the protagonists of Black Mountain Side as a distorted view of their own innate, or unconscious, cultural assumptions: from a possible post-colonial perspective. Certainly, it’s no new idea that the niceties of social morality and behaviour fall away from isolation and a real fear of starvation, a lack of shelter and safety, and imminent sickness to reveal the unspoken human ugliness underneath. And this is where the blatantly Lovecraftian branches out into something deeper in the darkness of the human psyche.

It’s the figure of the deer god that really gets me. When I first saw it, I had to know if there was some kind of basis for it in aboriginal, or First Nations, mythology. I looked into any Dogrib and Dene stories on hand but there was nothing on a deer god. However, deer do have some mythological significances that span beyond North America. For instance, some deer are seen as guardians of the earth while others represent learning and wisdom. Certainly with regards to a Native American connotation, the way that the film’s protagonists encounter the deer god –with its voice sounding like a Nazgul or Sauron himself — is reminiscent of a waking vision or spirit quest gone horribly wrong.

The deer god seems to offer wisdom, but only encourages maiming and murder: senseless trauma without enlightenment. It derides its victims’ expectations of it offering them knowledge or understanding. It seems to hint upon the fact that it is older than humankind and everywhere. It challenges and ruthlessly takes apart what they think they know about other cultures, their empirical subject matter and, indeed, their own perceptions of the world. It’s a subversion of what others might think a spirit animal or totem should be, or indeed the idea of some Great Spirit that is inherently benevolent. If anything, the deer god seems to be a human understanding of the land and how it is killing the protagonists. This deer hunts humans.

And even then, the film follows the tradition of not completely revealing or explaining the nature of the monster in that it is ambiguous as to whether or not this entity really exists, if it’s being hallucinated, or if — indeed — it is the real horror of this situation. Certainly, you could argue that the real terror is Black Mountain Side‘s possible critique of Western cultural values, concepts of race, science, and even a sense of reality.

In any case, when the last survivor gets caught by a 1930s bear-trap while fleeing for help, the atmosphere comes full circle. The environment, which is slowly eroding away their senses of self, wins as the last man realizes he’s trapped and lies in the snow, in silence, giving into oblivion. The lack of music, when the credits start rolling, is poignant. At the beginning of this review, I said that this film was a long game, but perhaps it is more of a slow burn or the slow encroachment of frost bite: of a terror and pain that ultimately turns into numbness and falls off into the darkness. Sometimes that is a limb, or piece of one’s sanity, or even one’s own soul. Snow covers all traces of human traps and tracks.

And in Black Mountain Side, only the silence is left to claim anything.

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Setting as Monster
Archaeologist Protagonists
Red Cephalopods -- Err, Herrings
Silent Soundtrack
Slow Frostbite Pacing
Final Thoughts

Szostakiwskyj's Black Mountain Side seems to hint on some mythological significance, social aspects, and even cosmic horror to his narrative. Yet it branches out and gets lost in its quiet, creeping, glacial pace: until even the fire and the blood are swallowed by the snow and its emptiness. The characters are hard to relate to and it is easy to lose track of who they are, but if the director's gruesome version of a deer god is the mind of his film, then his depiction of the Taiga Cordillera is definitely its soul.

Overall Score 3.9

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