The arctic thriller has a fairly respectable tradition, with several notable and varied exemplars: the sci-fi carrot-from-space classic "The Thing"; Hans Petter Moland's purely psychological "Zero Kelvin" of 1995 and, much more recently, the possessed and forgettable "30 Days of Night." What they have in common is their kinship with the lost-in-space epic: hostile terrain, scarce supplies, sketchy communications with the home base and, occasionally, people going mad.
"Black Mountain Side" has got it all. Except – maybe -- the vampires.
Set amid the taiga cordillera of northernmost Canada, the feature debut by the Calgary-born Nick Szostakiwskyj, which premiered last week at Fantasia, works a bit better as a psychological drama and character study than a horror movie, which is what, at its heart, it wants to be. The direction of the action, and actors, is solid; the special effects, frankly, are a bit mild – a geyser or two of blood would have made a couple of scenes more convincing. And the subtext of the tale – that it isn't the chill but the thaw that poses the greatest threat to the film's stranded band of archeologists – isn't explored nearly as well as one might like.
That said, the story finds traction almost immediately: At a site 100 miles from the nearest native reservation, at a time of year when there are five hours of sun during the day and minus-50-degree temperatures at night, a scientific party has made a startling discovery: The tip of a stone monument that bears every indication of being Mesoamerican – in a place 4,000 miles from the nearest known Mesoamerican civilization.
It can't be, says archeologist Peter Olsen (Michael Dickson), a professor of archeology who has been flown in especially to inspect the stone marker. And yet it seems to be, says the younger Francis Monroe (Carl Toftfelt), the on-site director of the dig. Their trading of theories about ancient cultures, and speculation about the fate of whatever people once occupied the place, are absorbing enough. But when the team's pet cat turns up slaughtered alongside the monument, the topic of conversation changes. The Inuit workers sneak off during the night. No one can be reached by radio. People start to hear voices.
"Black Mountain Side" benefits from having a group of distinct characters. Team Leader Myles Jensen (Shane Twerdun), for instance, who is reassuringly confident and levelheaded in the middle of mounting chaos; Drew McNaughton (Timothy Lyle), the equipment manager whose surliness seems to stem from feeling out of step with a group of antiquities specialists; Robert Michael Gyles (Marc Anthony Williams), the field-operations chief who keeps his wits squarely about him, until he very definitely does not; and Richard Anders, the group's medical doctor (Andrew Moxham), who remains remarkably calm for a physician who has to diagnose diseases that may be 20,000 years old: While it's not an exhaustively examined aspect of the plot, the assumption is made that bacteria long frozen and thus rendered harmless have arisen from the near-dead thanks to global warming and are infecting the team members. Or maybe people are simply losing their minds. For a long time, it's a toss-up.
Writer-director Szostakiwskyj exhibits a canny feel for ominous silences, vacant space and the art of stillness. He keeps present in the viewer's mind the frailty of human life in the wild, and the needs that would go unmet, were one to find oneself in a place two very brisk days' walk from anything human. There's a considerable amount of talk among the principals, who aside from poker and drinking don't have much else to do, but when something happens it happens with abruptness and drama: A team member, for instance, developing an "Alien"-like entity under the skin of his forearm, and another cutting that arm off with an axe. There's no cut-away; Szostakiwskyj sticks your nose in the gore.
The upshot is, there's no telling what's going to happen in "Black Mountain Side," or who might show up — the dark side of a character, as he goes slowly crazy, or a deer-headed deity, who may be God, or may be a hallucination.
Szostakiwskyj takes "Black Mountain Side" from a bleakly good-natured prelude to a dark, dark place, and a snowy arctic ending that -- perversely enough -- is right out of the Death Valley of "Greed." No one deserves what happens to them in "Black Mountain Side," but as the deer-head deity would tell you, no one ever said it all had to make sense.
"Black Mountain Side" premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.