Touted as potentially the best horror movie of the year, It Comes at Night is selling itself short to be branded in such basic terms. Horrific it can be in places, but complexity is the deeper truth Trey Edward Shults’ second picture holds at its core.
On the week of the film’s release in the UK, there has been a controversial article in The Guardian discussing the supposed nature of a new sub-genre It Comes at Night falls into: post-horror. Simply defined, these are horror movies which move past the need to scare in the conventional sense, rather soaked in existential dread and drawing you into a themed, tense, slow-build narrative. Get Out, this year, is cited as the clearest example of ‘post-horror’, as is David Lowery’s upcoming A Ghost Story. The term, however, is a poor misnomer; as a good friend of mine aptly put it to me today, “horror is horror. End of”.
It Comes at Night is not a horror film, and to declare as much is by no means suggesting it shouldn’t be. Horror is one of the defining genres of cinema, indeed it has been ever since people first married sound to image and realised the capacity to scare, such as FW Murnau in the original Nosferatu in 1922. Ninety plus years on, horror is one of the most varied and lucrative genres of film in existence, a genre ripe for fascinating experimentation and thematic depth. You can do almost anything in horror, as the most skilled filmmakers often prove. Much like Jordan Peele’s aforementioned Get Out however, Shults gives us a varied fusion of several different genres.
At its heart, It Comes at Night is really a survivalist thriller, with a stripped back concept tapping into a myriad cluster of themes. It just happens to use familiar horror film tropes; the creepy isolated woodland at night, filled with gnarled branches and the spectre of an unknown evil lurking in the darkness; animals with almost an extra-sensory pre-conception of danger; a remote wooden house at the heart of the forest, filled with creaking walkways, dim lighting and ominous rooms. Even the title is something of a tease but it quickly becomes apparent we’re dealing with a double meaning; there is no singular ‘it’ coming at night. The ‘it’ is far less obvious and far more existential.
It Comes at Night is very concerned with parents and children, and their place in the world. Set in a presumably near-distant future where a plague has spread amongst the population, Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) are raising their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison. Jr) inside a remote, boarded up country house. The very first scene sees the death of Travis’ grandfather from the disease, a presumed patriarch they must scorch in fire to prevent transmission of an unknown pathogen from an unknown source. The details are incidental. We never see the outside world. This is their world, a world we see largely through Travis’ tightly wound, curious perspective.
He has an unusual relationship with his parents. Paul is driven to protect and survive, at any cost, and Sarah very much follows his lead. Travis, oddly, seems divorced from their world, even though its one they’re all sharing. His isolation within an isolated situation is felt and he spends the entire movie looking for connections, consciously and subconsciously; being haunted by nightmares of his dying grandfather, or when another family are taken in after the father Will (Christopher Abbott) tries to break in, listening to their jokey, personal conversation through a hidey-hole in the attic and laughing like he’s listening to old friends. It’s unnerving because it’s quite tragic.
Shults’ film therefore never attempts to unseat or make his audience jump but rather creep under their skin, make them question and consider a situation which rapidly becomes psychologically and morally challenging. Should Paul and his family trust Will, his wife Kim and young son Andrew, given the manner in which they encountered them? Paranoia steadily begins to build as the nature of dreams and actions in the waking world are questioned in these contained, claustrophobic surroundings.
Is the ‘it’ which comes at night a figurative representation of fear, fear of the disease which exists beyond the woods? If so, why does the dog bark in the darkness? Who opens the terrifying red door at the end of the house which contains the sealed vacuum to the possibly infected outside? Questions are raised but no clear or easy answers are forthcoming. Where audiences have perhaps gone wrong in appraising Shults’ film is in expecting such answers. There is no clear, evil darkness prowling outside the house. There is no obvious hero or villain. There isn’t even a significant definition of whether supernatural elements are even afoot. There are merely people and situations.
Here is the film’s strength, and why no doubt it’s going to linger in the mind’s eye of many who watch it, and why it will absolutely become a cult curiosity. It Comes at Night lacks the raw, social power and commentary of Get Out to really break out and strike a similar chord, but there are definite similarities in terms of restraint and thematic resonance. Shults’ film is even more restrained and, in the end, far more of a elegy to death, loss and the terror of a death you absolutely cannot prevent or avoid.
Shot closely, quietly and eeking out every last drop of tense, breathless pause, It Comes at Night boasts some strong performances and a constant level of existential unease which permeates through you, even after you’ve left the cinema. Just remember: it is not a horror film and it is certainly not a ‘post-horror’ film. It beats to the march of its own drum and that should be applauded as much as Troy Edward Shults should be a director to watch.