Some words I scrawled down in my notebook during my screening of It Comes At Night: "Incredible," "Excruciating," "Horrifying," "Masterful." Now that my attempt at trying to get a pull quote on the blu-ray release is over: I cannot overstate how excellent this film is.
Simply put: Despite having one of the worst cinema trips I've had in recent memory, It Comes At Night was one of the most engaging experiences I can recall having in a theater. The entire cast grasps the desperation and stakes of the situation convincingly, and cinematographer Drew Daniels' affinity for long takes with a constantly moving camera add a great deal of tension of suspense to writer/director Trey Edward Shults' lean but thrilling script. The film draws you in so much that I almost forgot about the annoying teenagers in the back of the room injecting their commentary, and the fact that either the cinema staff forgot to turn the off the house lights, or Regal Fairfield Commons Stadium in Ohio has the most absurdly bright theater lighting I've ever seen.
The film tells the story of a family, holed up in a house in the woods after a plague-like virus has seemingly destroyed civilization. The family consists of Paul, the father and patriarch (played by Joel Edgerton), Sarah, the mother of the family and inheritor of the property (played by Carmen Ejogo), and Travis, their teenage son (played incredibly by up-and-comer Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The family's life is turned upside down when Will (played by Christopher Abbott) shows up and attempts to loot the place, assuming it's abandoned. After some intense interrogation scenes, desperate convincing, and old fashioned bandit killing, Will convinces Paul that he is just a normal guy, and they agree to move their families in with each other to help survive.
Despite the fact that any plot that is predicated on the term "post-apocolyptic" seems entirely old-hat by 2017 standards, the film is mostly concerned with the human relationships at the core of the story. Over the course of the film the two families come together and begin to create a unit. Will teaches Travis how to chop wood. His wife, Kim (played by Riley Keough) talks to him in the middle of the night after he has one of his recurring nightmares. In return, Travis looks out for Will's son, Andrew, when he gets out of bed in the middle of the night and hides in an empty room due to a bad dream. The two families enjoy meals together, twice a day around one table with laughs, and stories, and food that is plentiful. It is at precisely this point that whatever is supposed to come at night doesn't.
Where lesser films in the genre would depend on gross-out body horror as a result of the virus, or the impending threat of anarchist bandits in the woods, the real horror in It Comes At Night is the way our own biases and prejudices towards other people tear us apart. The film gives its audience enough blood-vomiting and bandit killing to convince them that the threat is real, but slowly, the film shifts all of its tension to the dynamic between the two families.
In order to keep the audience in suspense while they wait for the true horror to arrive, the film skilfully crafts several red herrings, borrowing many classic #horror movie tropes which are typically designed to warn the audience of the of coming danger. Travis's recurring nightmares, which are incredibly prevalent in the front half of the film, seem to act as premonition to whatever horror is lurking just around the corner. But they're not. They are simply a teenager having bad dreams. This device is used to such great effect that during every one of Travis's nightmares, you're convinced that this time it's real — despite the fact that every single previous sequence turned out to be a dream. Along these lines, the dog going mad and chasing seemingly nothing into the woods seems — as it does in every horror movie with a dog — to forebode the coming of the supernatural. The film doubles down on this idea when the dog returns to the house and dies from the disease.
These scenes, which are genuinely scary in their own right, only serve to make sure that when the real horror finally shows its head, it is something far more terrifying than the audience could have suspected.
Toward the end of the film, both families become convinced that a member of the other family is infected, and that theirs is in danger. Will's family decides to leave. Paul's family decides to kick them out. Both sides want the same thing: For Will and his family to leave the house without anyone getting infected or hurt. The only problem is the food. Will wants to take a fair share for his family. Paul thinks that if Will is to leave the compound, then he shouldn't be allowed to take any of the resources. Because none of the people in the house trust each other, they all pull guns, throw punches, and make runs for it in order to outdo the others. In an excruciatingly tense sequence, Will's entire family is slain at the hands of Paul, one by one, starting with Andrew, the young child.
This is the point when you realize that nothing is coming at night. This is the point that you realize that nothing even vaguely supernatural is going to happen in this movie. This is the point when you realize that one of the greatest terrors of all is not an outside force that sneaks into your house. Instead, the most horrific part of this film is the fear of the unknown that can drive the protagonist — the man you've been rooting for this whole time — to slaughter an innocent family over the imagined fear of losing his own.
The brilliance of It Comes At Night is that everything, including the very title, is a misdirect designed to raise the stakes of an impending, yet imagined danger. It expertly creates for the audience the paranoia and dread felt by the characters, that is inherent in a world where everyone outside of one's family is either a physical, biological, or existential threat. The end result is as horrifying and grotesque as anything Wes Craven or Stephen King could dream up — all without the dream-invading serial killers or sewer-dwelling clowns.
All of this is to say that It Comes At Night feels like a horror movie. It follows all the same beats as a horror movie. It has as much blood, and screaming, and bumps in the night to validate its distinction as a bonafide horror film. And it is precisely this tonal and formal adherence to the genre that makes the climax of the film all the more heartbreaking, all the more tense — and ultimately, all the more terrifying.
There's an idea that all great horror takes something in our society we already fear and abstracts it beyond reality. Invasion of the Body Snatchers played on the fear of home-grown communism in the '50s by giving viewers a world in which anyone could look human, but in fact something altogether alien. Rosemary's Baby speaks to the fear of our society's control over women's bodies by barring Rosemary from making any decisions about her own pregnancy, and in turn becomes a surrogate for the Anti-Christ. If films like these are effective because they abstract a latent societal fear — by making them more fantastic, more supernatural, or more fictitious than the societal fears they speak to — It Comes At Night is effective because it abstracts the subject of its horror. Where other films rely on the alien pods or satanic cults to get their message across, It Comes At Night brings the fear of other people and other groups out, and focuses it on a micro-scale. It gives its audience a reality in which the fears and crimes of our entire society are realized on an individual level, where good old American men with guns are quite literally responsible for the deaths of innocent children and families, simply because they fear they may not have the best intentions.
This leads me to the headline, that It Comes At Night is the social parable film of the decade. I feel comfortable with this claim because one: Children of Men came out in 2006. Two: The Handmaid's Tale is a TV show. Three: Get Out is the social parable film of the century, so this film can take the decade.
It is no coincidence that this film comes when it does. In a time when nationalism is on the rise, the number of refugees is increasing, while the places they seek asylum seek to reject them, and when racism is a determining factor in a presidential election, it isn't far-fetched to think that a horror film whose conflict is centered around in-group/out-group dynamics is perhaps socially relevant. It Comes At Night plays to these fears we face in our society flawlessly, and crafts a story where the true horror doesn't come from what the outsiders can or will do to you, but from one person's own fear for their family's safety that ultimately leads them to killing another innocent family in cold blood.
Tell us in the comments: What did you think of It Comes At Night?