Every now and then, it’s refreshing to see a new take on the horror genre. We’re so conditioned to the jump scare nowadays that few scary movies have caught my attention in the past few years. One of the movies that did was It Comes at Night. The trailer had promised a claustrophobic roller-coaster thrill ride. What I was given was a rickety haunted house, where the animatronic monsters don’t pop out at the right time, and the cart in which I’m sitting in, lurches forward inconsistently.
It Comes At Night is directed by Trey Edward Shults and stars Joel Edgerton, alongside Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Carmen Ejogo. Our leading roles are a a family of three: Paul (Edgerton), Sarah (Ejogo), and Travis (Harrison Jr.). This family has taken refuge from an apocalyptic plague and have become isolated from the world. They occupy a large manor hidden in a verdant forest, supposedly somewhere in America. The movie does a good job of making you feel that isolation – the house that they reside in is all boarded up, they try not to venture out at night, and resources like food and water are in short supply. The film opens with the family dealing with a mysterious death and builds from there.
An old man, later revealed to be the grandpa of the family, has been stricken by a mysterious ailment. Preparations are made, and goodbyes are said, as the group takes care of business by shooting this man on the edge of death, and burning his body, to hopefully quell the sickness. I found it very hard to relate with the death of someone so early, as he didn’t have a single spoken line, and the acting of the main characters don’t do much to convince that he’ll be missed. So, we trudge on from there. Much of the first act is spent showing the daily lives of our survivors, as well as showcasing the weird sleep patterns of our young protagonist, Travis.
The cinematography was quite good. Intense shots of character’s faces, superb 360 degree shots, and an intricate set were all things to credit this film. Moving shots were seamless, as they followed Travis, our young teenager, through the winding hallways of the house. One minute we’re watching him yell at an unseen “something” and the next, we’re whirling 180 degrees around to be greeted by a panicked Paul. Quite disorienting and unsettling. The camera crew may pat themselves on the back because it was one of the few things that worked for this movie.
However, there were things about the camera-work I was very displeased with, like the empty shots of overgrown forest. I spent too much time squinting, when there was probably nothing to see anyway. To me, this was an attempt to build suspense of what might be out there, waiting in the dark. You can only do that so many times, however, as viewers will eventually want to SEE something, preferably something that frightens them. That, coupled with the very strange dream sequences that Travis deals with on a nightly basis, which are nothing more than red herrings in my opinion, to distract you from all the questions that are building in your head, and give you the few scares of the movie.
The family eventually encounters more survivors in the wilderness and brings them back to stay at their house, after a thorough vetting. You can see the mistrust instantly, as Paul (Joel Edgerton) clearly has a deep apprehension for outsiders. He calls the shots among the group, his justification being that it’s his family and their house. A ‘my way or the highway’ attitude is adopted.
The new people on screen don’t do much for the movie. They are inconsistent in their actin, and the father of the mirrored group, Will, played by Christopher Abbot, is off his game. He didn’t give the film much value, as most of his time is spent groveling and thanking Paul for allowing them to stay with his family. There aren’t many sides to a character such as his. The same sort of thing applies to his onscreen wife and son, as they follow in the footsteps of Abbot, not really lending anything for the recipe of a good film.
As the movie begins to peak towards the latter half of the third act, I was genuinely invested in our leading characters. I wanted the entire group to live happily ever after and wait out the end of all mankind. Unfortunately, incredibly stupid decisions are made and fatal consequences happen in turn. The group descends into madness and eventually rips itself apart, with each family taking their own side. Some very good acting in the climactic scene of the penultimate act gave me hope for a decent ending to a mediocre movie.
It was not to be. After multiple deaths on screen our original family is back to square one. Alone by themselves in the house again. An arc that literally comes full circle, with nothing to show for it, but blood on their hands. Travis starts to show symptoms of the plague, and the movie begins to just fizzle out. Any questions you had about the origin of this illness, or what, if anything, is stalking our family from the dark, are thrown directly back at you, leaving you to fill in the holes of a plot resembling Swiss cheese. Our final shot is of Paul and Sarah sitting in the kitchen, staring at each other, not saying a word. Then we cut to black.
As per the title of the film, I assumed we were dealing with something tangible. The more I thought about it, I realized there really was no sinister presence of any kind at all. Paranoia? Travis’s night terrors? This is what is befalling our family at night? The plague that we’d only seen briefly at the beginning, and rather weirdly portrayed in dreams, was not enough to frighten me. I can’t for the life of me say that this movie was scary.
Although the film followed behind other isolated, plague-thrillers, it piqued my curiosity early on. I wish, having seen it, I could tell you that you should go watch it now, but I will not be giving that recommendation. If you’re looking for a psychological thriller and a study of human nature at its basest form, then this movie might be for you. If you consider yourself a connoisseur of carnage and are looking for a movie that will creep into your thoughts the next time you walk down a dark street, this is not it.