It Comes at Night, 2017.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults.
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbot, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough.
A family sheltering from a worldwide disaster find their fragile peace disturbed by the arrival of another family seeking refuge.
The world has been living a real-life horror film this year, facing a crisis that has forced us to lock ourselves away to keep each other and ourselves safe, with only our anxiety and paranoia for company. And our families, I suppose. While I don’t know how film-makers will attempt to depict this crisis on screen, there are already many films that prophetically mirror the terrifying situation we find ourselves in and the havoc it has played on our collective sanity. One such film is Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night.
While it might take place in a post-apocalyptic setting and deal with familiar horror themes, It Comes at Night is not a conventional horror film. Scares are few and far between. There are no monsters. No zombies. There isn’t even much in the way of physical threats facing our protagonists save for a single brief scene. What the film does have is a suffocating atmosphere of paranoia and fear that every character is a possible threat. That everyone might be lying to each other and that every action has the potential to doom everyone to a gruesome painful death. The film, what it lacks in horror and plot, it makes up for in thematic weight, with a heavy emphasis on themes such as grief, isolation, death and paranoia. These themes are reflected subtly throughout in the behaviours of the characters, visual cues such as the ominous red door and (rather uniquely) changes in the aspect ratio which drop hints at the eventual fate of one character.
The suffocating atmosphere of the film is perfectly conveyed via the setting, a creaky old house located deep in the woods. The house is ingeniously designed with a deliberately vague layout that prevents you from being able to familiarise yourself with, creating an uncomfortable feeling, almost as if you are trapped with the protagonists in an ever-shifting maze from which there is no apparent escape. The most frightening area of the house, however, is a delightfully simple one, a long dark corridor leading to an ominous red door that serves as the only entrance and exit. Its bloodlike colour offering a menacing hint at the implied horrors lurking beyond.
While I often complain about slow pacing in other films (a bit too often I admit) It Comes at Night is a prime example of a slow pace done right. The film is a smouldering slow burn, its minimal plot moving along carefully and quietly with only the brief flashes of brutality and terror keeping the viewer on edge. Slowly building up the tension as it goes, leaving you dreading that the quiet will soon be broken by something dreadful. While the film does sport a handful of what you could call “traditional” horror moments, these are mainly limited to dream sequences that serve to jolt you awake after a few slow moments.
Visually the film is a blending of beauty and darkness, full of carefully composed shots that linger long enough to allows us to drink up the atmosphere without being overlong. The nighttime scenes offer some of the best uses of darkness I’ve ever seen in a film. The looming shadows of the woods or the hallways of the house enveloping the frame, the white glow of a small lantern only allowing us to see fragments of what possible horrors lay ahead.
The performances from the small cast are superb throughout. Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo are captivating as Paul and Sarah, a couple whose desperation to keep themselves and their son safe lead them down a dark path. Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough are also terrific as Will and Kim, a seemingly innocent couple struggling to survive, but who may or may not be a threat to their new hosts’ fragile peace. Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Travis, Paul and Sarah’s son, is the stand-out performance of the film, with the actor often able to convey a myriad of emotions with minimal dialogue.
It Comes at Night is a very different kind of horror film from the kind I usually watch. However, it’s because of this rather vague and slow approach taken by the film that I found it to be a surprisingly compelling watch. However, much like pretty much everything released by art-house powerhouse A24 (the studio behind the recent explosion of audience polarising art house horror), It Comes at Night is destined to be rock solid Marmite among viewers. Some might appreciate its more contemplative approach, but others will find its lack of clear answers to be a source of frustration and tedium. While I enjoyed the film for being so different from my usual horror fare, I can understand why some viewers might end up hating this film with a passion. Put simply, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
Thanks to strong performances, an ominous visual style and a suffocating atmosphere, It Comes at Night, while not likely to please everyone, is a brilliant and disturbingly prescient piece of art-house horror that acts as a disturbing reflection of the world we now live in. Check it out if you’re curious, although it might hit a tad to close to home for some of us.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★