Digital Editor Alex McDonald is conflicted over indie “horror” It Comes at Night
Horror films like It Comes at Night must be a nightmare for marketing teams. How can one accurately convey what essentially amounts to a tone piece and sell it to a mainstream audience who are hungry for scares? The answer: Not particularly well. For those who have seen the trailer and are going into the cinema excitedly anticipating the unsettling imagery that it promised, you’ll likely be disappointed. To those going into it with an open mind, well, it’s difficult to say whether you’ll enjoy it or not. I get the feeling that this will be a very polarising film.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll do my best to give an accurate synopsis of the film: At its core, It Comes at Night is about two fathers who would do anything to protect their families. Framed by an apocalyptic plague that has wiped out humanity, getting sick is the least of people’s worries; paranoia is infectious. The horror of It Comes at Night, ultimately doesn’t come from outside as the trailers would suggest, it comes from within. It is the unbearable tension of the character drama that slowly twists the knife over the surprisingly brisk hour and a half run time. There is no mysterious force or horde of infected zombies to fear, so everyone must be feared. In a world where family and survival is everything, there are no antagonists, just excellently layered characters.
Given that I believe this film will divide horror fans, there are a few things that are undeniably fantastic about this film. Joel Edgerton once again proves himself to be a phenomenal actor with an understated performance that makes you wonder why he ever signed onto Exodus: Gods and Kings. All of the acting on display is great, but as usual in his smaller, more personal projects, Edgerton stands out and it is difficult to take your eyes off of him. Kelvin Harrison Jr. also puts in a strong performance as Edgerton’s 17 year-old son, acting as our eyes into this strange world.
The direction and cinematography is also irrefutably brilliant. Director Trey Edward Shults guides his camera with such precision that every frame seems meticulously crafted. Each creeping long take builds tension and the often subdued, diegetic lighting creates a strong sense of claustrophobia as the darkness creeps in. From a technical stand point, It Comes at Night is flawless.
Where this film might lose audiences however, is in its plot, in that, there isn’t much of one. Or perhaps more truthfully, not one that takes any time to answer the mysteries that it sets up. If you like closure in your films then you certainly aren’t going to get any here. One could argue that it makes the film more immersive because we only learn what the characters learn. Others could say that it is lazy writing. Shults has said in interviews that the sparse information was intentional, but while that will please film festival critics, it’s likely to irritate the average viewer.
Easily the most frustrating part of It Comes at Night are the plentiful nightmare sequences. Nightmares in horror films are a tired trope because it’s an easy scare and it ultimately has no effect on the story. The majority of the frightening imagery from the trailer is confined to these sequences so those who were enticed by those moments will likely be disappointed by their lack of lasting impact. Eagle-eyed viewers will also notice that the aspect ratio of the camera changes during these scenes, becoming tighter, enclosing the characters. However, this also serves to take all of the tension out of the moment as it is blatantly obvious that none of it is real. The nightmares are eerie, but nonetheless hollow.
Verdict: It Comes at Night is a superbly crafted film, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it will resonate with audiences in any way. Stellar acting and direction make this an objectively great film, but the subjectivity with regards to how you view the plot will prove to be its divisive downfall. Perhaps the most accurate way to judge whether you’ll enjoy this film before you see it is to ask yourself whether you enjoyed last year’s The Witch; if you did, book your tickets right now, and if you didn’t, maybe sit this one out. Ultimately, while I enjoyed It Comes at Night very much, I cannot wholeheartedly endorse it.