Claustrophobic horror thriller It Comes At Night is the latest film to land in an ongoing culture war (actually more of a skirmish between factions) for the soul of the genre, between films considered mainstream and art-house. I feel I have to write something about this about once a year. The last time being when Bret Easton Ellis went on a diatribe against ‘art horror’ coinciding with the UK release of Austrian horror movie Goodnight Mommy, you can read that here.
Such think pieces and debates are frustrating to me, as the often obscure the qualities of the film at hand. So is to worth spending your hard earned case on seeing It Comes At Night at the movies, or should you just wait for VOD or streaming?
Find out after the jump…
It Comes At Night takes place in and immediately around a large house located deep in a forest, but it is very far from being a fairy tale. Within the boarded up home resides a family hiding from a lethal viral pandemic and other survivors who may covet their home and supplies. A horrifying opening scene demonstrates both the effects of the virus and the draconian measures being undertaken by family patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton), to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr).
Paul and his family have a strict routine, no-one goes out of the house at night, they wear gas masks and protective clothing outside, and all but one entrance to the house has been sealed. Behind the front door, is a vestibule that acts as a kind of air-lock or holding cell. Beyond this a heavy red door prevents access to the home. The door is always padlocked, and only Paul keeps a key on his person. The routine of their lives is broken with the arrival of another family, Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew.
This is a simple and familiar set up for a horror movie which writer/director Trey Edward Shults opts to keep intimate. Details of the outbreak are left sketchy. Very little back story is given delivered in a few terse exchanges of dialogue, or suggested by pre-outbreak photos on the walls. Shults never cuts away from his characters and so we only see what they see. This induces an atmosphere of sweaty paranoia. There are suggestions that there may be something malevolent in the woods, but we never see any evidence.
The film is primarily told from the point of view of Travis, the son. The isolation of the situation compounded by a recent loss and the arrival of a woman close to his age, clearly disturb the 17 year old. Travis suffers from vividly realised night terrors (enhanced by an almost imperceptible narrowing of the film’s already widescreen aspect ratio) and is beginning to test his father’s authority.
When Travis finds the red door mysteriously open in the middle of the night, paranoia and mistrust begin to drive both families apart.
This is a low key film, but not a slow burn. Shults creates a pressure cooker atmosphere. The terrific cinematography of Drew Daniels fills the screen with inky shadows that creep over every surface. Former Dirty Projectors drummer Brian McOmber’s score enhances the thick atmosphere of menace.
Recently The Guardian ran an article (How post-horror movies are taking over cinema by Steve Rose) rather fancifully claiming that there was a new wave of not exactly horror films ‘taking over cinema’. The author coined the term ‘post-horror’ and across social media the reaction from horror fans ranged from weary resignation to outright fury. Of the responses to the article, this one on the site Warped Perspective puts the counter case convincingly (A BRIEF RESPONSE TO ‘POST-HORROR’ by Nia Edwards-Behi).
The igniting spark for the Rose’s bonfire of an article appears to be Shults’ claim (quoted without a source in the article) that he did not set out to make a horror film with It Comes At Night. I’ve seen the director called some fairly unpleasant things online by overly precious horror fans because of this. William Friedkin the director of The Exorcist, a movie firmly in the pantheon of greatest horror films, has also claimed that neither he nor the writer William Peter Blatty set out to make a horror film. So maybe think before throwing derogatory epithets around.
If a filmmaker wants to make this claim, that is their right. It certainly isn’t unusual for directors and writers who have not set up their stall purely in the genre. In my view, what a filmmaker says about their work is interesting but irrelevant. Good, bad of mediocre, the work should be allowed to speak for itself.
It Comes At Night could be classed as science fiction. There is sub-genre of apocalyptically inclined SF movies based around viral outbreaks (Children of Men, The Andromeda Strain, Blindness, to name a few). Shults’ film certainly lacks the kind of external threat found in zombie movies (from Romero’s shambling reanimated corpses, to 28 Days Later’s sprinting infected). Even the virus itself seems less of a tangible threat than, say, the weaponised super-flu Captain Trips from Stephen King’s The Stand.
Rose’ post-horror article is nonsensical. This isn’t the vanguard of a post-horror invasion. Films like this or The Witch aren’t new, they simply aren’t in the mainstream of current horror that can be found playing your local multiplex. Rose claims that post-horror is a reaction against the kind of mainstream horror produced by Blumhouse and post-horror shows what happens when indie filmmakers break away from the ‘rigid’ framework of the genre. But the very conventions he rails against were only arose because the genre is constantly innovating. When Romero made Night of the Living Dead and introduced the zombie, or when John Carpenter crystallised the conventions of the slasher movie with Halloween, these films were paradigm shifts taking horror into new territory.
So is It Comes At Night a horror film? Defining the horror genre is notoriously difficult. Like the adage ‘I don’t know art, but I know what I like’ horror is something that is hard to put down on paper, but you know it when you feel it. In that case, hell yes this is a horror film. If you don’t think so watch if back to back with Perfect Sense, both films feature fictional viral diseases that destroy society, but its pretty obvious that one is a horror film, and the other isn’t. For me, something is a horror film if you find horror rising within it. And the ‘it’ in the film’s title is key.
Because there are no zombies banging at the walls, the film has been slammed by fans of the kind of mainstream horror currently popular. With Toby Hooper’s Poltergeist as a progenitor, films like Insidious, The Conjuring, Lights Out, and many more, are structured like fairground rides. Ghost Train attractions that dangle fake cobwebs in your face and turn the lights out every ten minutes before jumping out in a sheet and shouting “BOO”.
Now there is nothing wrong with this, but it is only one mode of horror and it is perfectly possible to have a horror film without jump scares (which isn’t even true with regard to It Comes At Night which has several of them). Mystery, suspense and dread are also tools in horror’s arsenal, and Shults deployed them expertly. He borrows David Lynch’s technique of slowly tracking into darkness to create a feeling of a malevolent presence, but also takes a technique from Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, presenting long static takes with no obvious object for the audience to focus on. In the absence of a clear cue, a viewer who has already been placed into a state of suspense fills in the negative space with their own fears.
It Comes At Night is a film about characters under immense stress crumbling, and how fear can drive ‘good people’ to do terrible acts. And as shown by Travis’ frequent nightmares, fear comes at night. So let’s forget all this ‘post’ nonsense and stop acting like it’s the early nineties and we just read an Idiot’s Guide to Jean Baudrillard.