What makes a horror movie satisfyingly horrifying? Your mileage may vary. A large-enough segment of the moviegoing public seems to enjoy the use of paranormal explanations for unnerving phenomena that there never seems to be a dearth of supernatural horror flicks being made and filling cinema seats. For this viewer, however, blaming violent doings on ghosts or demons or occult forces of any kind – explanations that conveniently relieve humans of responsibility for their own worst behavior – seems a bit of a narrative cop-out. People can be quite awful enough, thank you very much.
It may be true, as asserted by H. P. Lovecraft, that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown;” but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the unknown is unknowable. Stories of evil spirits and monsters in many ancient cultures were doubtless inspired by the sounds of mundanely dangerous creatures prowling around just outside the circle of firelight. Our ancestors couldn’t see them, and their imaginations may have made them bigger and scarier than they really were, with perhaps a few extra heads. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t real animals out there – merely hungry and looking for some sustenance, possibly us.
While living is still ultimately and inexorably a terminal experience, life in the 21st century has lost a fair few of the risks that gave us adrenaline rushes during most of the millennia of human evolution. Nowadays, leopards don’t crouch on tree limbs overhanging our suburban driveways. And for many of us, safe = boring. So we look to the immaterial and unexplainable for our cathartic jump scares, channeled through projected images in dark theaters from which we can emerge unscathed into daylight afterwards.
All well and good, and such tastes in entertainment create decently paying jobs for many a media artist. For me, though, the threat in the horror flick is much more effective if it’s grounded in the tangible, so that you can’t just walk out and wave it away, saying, “Oh, that’s just a movie.” Mental illness counts; the hallucinations suffered by the protagonist of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion are among the most frightening images ever recorded on film, in my book. Nightmares count; we all have them, and they express our real fears in symbolic ways. And although I won’t follow it all the way to zombie-apocalypse scenarios, contagion counts. Disease still kills most of us. Humans behaving badly, driven by their own fears, rational or irrational, count most of all.
That’s the beauty of Trey Edward Shults’ new thriller, the infelicitously named It Comes at Night. People who go see it hoping for malevolent spirits, stalking undead or alien monsters will be disappointed. Some may even wonder why it’s being marketed as a horror flick – especially with that misleading title. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the “It” refers on one level to a deadly plague, on another to unexpected (and possibly untrustworthy) human visitors and on yet another to fear itself. All the bad things that happen here really could happen, and probably would in many places if a new, highly contagious and lethal disease should emerge for which science has no remedy.
It Comes at Night is a grim and minimalistic depiction of people in desperate straits, weighing the likelihood of contamination in all their interactions. We never find out what exactly this disease is, although it bears symptomatic similarities both to bubonic/pneumonic plague and Ebola. In its final stages, victims – such as the grandfather whose death launches the narrative – are covered with boils or buboes and hemorrhage at the mouth. It’s an affliction gross enough for any horror movie, for sure. Other than creepy makeup and stage blood, no special effects are needed.
What this film accomplishes splendidly, on a low indie budget, is to create an atmosphere of sustained tension and creepiness that has more to do with the unknowns of potential human reactions to stress than with the killer disease itself. Almost all of it was shot inside and immediately outside one of Woodstock’s uninhabited Byrdcliffe houses, its dream sequences making very effective use of the building’s long hallways and attic cubbyholes. If you’re a true devotee of filmcraft, I’d recommend seeing It Comes at Night if for no other reason than its exquisite cinematography – particularly its use of light, in scenes where nightmare-plagued Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), the son of the beleaguered household, wanders upstairs and downstairs carrying a rechargeable electric lamp.
This claustrophobic tale is told from Travis’ perspective, and young Harrison does a fine job; I expect we’ll be seeing more of him. The rest of the small-but-excellent cast includes Joel Edgerton as Paul, the domineering father; a somewhat underutilized Carmen Ejogo as Sarah, the fiercely protective mother; and Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner as the second family who show up at the barricaded door seeking refuge. Oh, and there’s also a mangy-looking dog who plays an important part in the proceedings.
Otherwise, It Comes at Night is mostly all about interhuman negotiations where trust, suspicion and interdependency keep tipping the scales in one direction or another. It’s definitely an actors’ movie. If you like psychological horror better than the supernatural sort, and relish relational nuance over special effects, you might find it right up your dark alley.