It's not every day that a movie guts you and hangs you up to bleed, but that is exactly how It Comes at Night is leaving moviegoers. From indie studio A24, the company responsible for 2016's #TheWitch, It Comes at Night breaks the mold of a typical summer #horror flick. The movie is a carefully directed, beautifully acted, and gut-wrenching dip into a post-apocalyptic world. There's no shortage of horror elements (it will make your toenails curl into your feet, and that's a promise), but It Comes at Night focuses on something far scarier than things that go bump in the nigh: ambiguity. Moral, situational and atmospheric ambiguity.
It seems fitting that moviegoers are struggling to figure out exactly what happened in the film. Most importantly, we all want to know what it meant. Spoilers for It Comes at Night follow, so beware.
It Comes at Night is a movie best enjoyed without knowing anything, but if you've already seen it and you have the same questions as everyone else, stick around. We're going to pick apart every aspect of the film until the pieces are laid out on the table for all to see.
The first key to understanding It Comes at Night is in the fact that it's built around a force not often explored by horror movies: a virus. The story follows a family in the woods who have separated themselves from the outside world. They wear masks and gloves when they venture outside in daylight hours, but the red door leading out of their house — the only door — stays locked at night. It's safer that way, they think. It Comes at Night exists to create the helpless feeling of paranoia, and that's the first hurdle we'll have to jump, because the movie doesn't act like a horror movie as much as it acts as a thriller.
Where does the paranoia come from? Travis (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his family are terrified of the sickness. The film is sparked by the cringe-inducing death of Travis's grandfather, which gives us a few good reasons to be scared of this particular plague, too. But in addition to the sickness, It Comes at Night hints at something else beyond the doors of their home — something bigger. The story teases "it" more than once, but never gives us a glimpse of what the unseen evil might be; we're intentionally kept in the dark.
Despite the hallucinogenic visual style and the spine-tingling music, It Comes at Night is dedicated to being clean of any paranormal forces. There's something far more evil at work in the story.
We Are The Monsters
Keeping the outside threat vague is the way It Comes at Night puts emphasis on the characters. More specifically, how the characters destroy each other. The movie gathers momentum when a new group comes to stay with Travis's family. They pool their resources and consider themselves safer in higher numbers, but when the red door is found open one night, tensions rise. The underlying distrust between their relationships claws its way to the surface.
It Comes at Night has many messages, but the most obvious is that people don't need monsters to be scared — they make their own fears; they destroy themselves. The story executes this bleak sentiment by using one specific visual catalyst.
The Red Door
That's right. The red door is the start and the end of this entire mess. It Comes at Night circles back to the same hallway in every key moment, lingering on the thin wood separating the characters from the unknown, peering into the black void in the rare moments when the door is open. As a visual symbol, it's easy to read into the story and figure out what It Comes at Night is trying say with this particular subject. The red door means trouble, right? A closer look reveals two distinct meanings to this mystery.
- The first meaning is death. When Travis or his family interact with the door, by investigating it or passing through it or even looking at it, death follows. It's easy to attribute the consequences to other forces, and that's what It Comes at Night wants you to notice. We can see the real root of the problem — they can't. The characters fear death, and the red door becomes one and the same.
- Second, the red door is a mirror. This is the less obvious meaning, but there's a unique aspect of the story that ties it all together. Travis has dreams. Sometimes, he dreams of walking to the red door. Sometimes he dreams of one of his housemates in his bedroom. Sometimes, he dreams of being sick. Whatever the subject of his dreams, they are always anchored by the red door. When he wakes up, real life begins to imitate his nightmares. The red door acts as a window into Travis's mental state, and it reminds him that the horror he's experiencing comes from inside him.
Travis's dreams lead to a dark conclusion.
At the end of It Comes at Night, Travis is infected with the virus his family has been so careful to avoid. He drifts into a feverish sleep. Tired and defeated, he walks through the house to the red door, steps through and embraces death.
All Together Now
As a film, It Comes at Night isn't saying just one thing. The story is dynamic, subtle and sometimes too vague for its own good. Should we read our own meaning into the story? The intentional ambiguity of the movie suggests that we should, and there are many ways to interpret the story, but even with all its moving pieces, there's no doubt that It Comes at Night is trying to whisper something specific in our ears.
- With the sickness looming over every scene, we're told that safety is relative.
- In the disastrous tension between characters, the notion that we create our own evil is instilled in our minds.
- The red door serves to show us not only does death wait, but that we have always been walking a fatal path.
It Comes at Night might not be the exact flavor of horror we expected, but it resonates powerfully on one bleak thought. You don't have to be afraid of what comes in the dark, because it's already here with us.