While genre is a necessary tool helping us to classify film, it’s a far from perfect one. Comedy and drama as genres are so broad as to be nearly no help at all in letting us decide if a film is one we want to check out. Even more narrowed genres like science fiction can mean a multitude of things – is it a movie about space exploration? artificial intelligence? fantasy which uses faux technology in place of magic? I’m glad I got to see It Comes at Night with a small crew of friends, for as we were leaving the theater one of them remarked, “I was expecting a horror movie.” I completely understand why she said that, because It Comes at Night uses gore very sparingly, and what little it does use is either unrealistic or flashed on screen so quickly our brains can’t process what our eyes just saw. The director goes out of his way to avoid anything resembling a jump scare, going so far as to change camera angles when a character is walking up behind another just to make sure the audience isn’t startled. There is no supernatural creature stalking a group of protagonists taking them out one by one, nor a psychic worming their way into anyone’s head. But, It Comes at Night is still most definitely a horror movie. In a way, it’s one of the most horrific movies I’ve ever seen.
It Comes at Night is an incredibly low budget movie. If it weren’t for the obvious quality of the cameras used to capture the story and the fact that Joel Edgerton plays our lead character (former history professor Paul) this could be a movie that a very talented amateur could film in their own home. It Comes at Night uses no CGI effects, the sets are very barebones – just an oldish house and the woods surrounding it, and while this isn’t the first film for the majority of the cast, not a one is an instantly recognizable name and face. This means that the entire story hinges on acting, script, music, and cinematography, and all four of these elements are absolutely top notch.
The horror in It Comes at Night comes from feelings of claustrophobia, isolation, and being kept in the dark both literally and figuratively. Drew Daniels through his cinematography paints the perfect picture to keep us in a state of dread by showing us that not only are we stuck in a world made up largely of bare, long, dark corridors with no handy exits, but even when we are not in that closed in world there is still no help anywhere to be found in the outside world. Camerawork when done well can be art, it can excite, and in this case, it can instill in us paranoia and hopelessness as everywhere we look there is no escape from the trap gradually closing in on us, but never giving us any real clue as to what that trap is, just that it’s there.
The performances in It Comes at Night are amazing in their understatement. This again, isn’t a typical horror film as there is very little panic, screaming, nor speeches about the thing out there that’s going to get us. The people here are very real – the father who is devoted to protecting his family, but not always knowing the best way to do that and having to keep a brave front (Joel Edgerton). The mother who wants the same, but feels the best way to do that is to back up her husband and lend him guidance but never undercut him (Carmen Ejogo). The seventeen year-old boy who has no companions excepting his mother, father, and dog until they let another family move into their house and he finds himself being drawn in the way seventeen year-olds are to the young wife in that family (Kelving Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough respectively). Every performance here is nuanced and realistic and never once goes over the top. We get that these are real people, we get why each acts the way they do, and all this is again absolutely necessary in amplifying our dread. We not only feel for the characters, we allow them to become stand ins for ourselves.
Then there is the script. This is a story that doesn’t rely on the usual scares nor a lot of dialogue, it’s a story that relies on making sure the audience doesn’t know anything more than the characters in the story do, which is really what makes them our perfect stand ins. Many of the events in the story take place because of something that happened outside of our protagonists field of vision and thus outside their knowledge, and these events are never explained to us. Trey Edward Shults, both writer and director of It Comes at Night, said explicitly that while he knows the impetus of everything that happens in the film’s running time, he very purposely left us without any clues that would let us know anything more than our characters do. This is the element that truly solidifies It Comes at Night into the realm of horror more so than any other. Even in films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity which It Comes at Night has a lot in common with we are given some sort of release in the end as we find out what it is that’s been tormenting us throughout the film. It Comes at Night gives us no such release.
Final verdict: It Comes at Night is a film for film critics and auteurs more than for general audiences. There is little to no fun to be had in this movie, as it is a non-stop barrage on your emotional state with never ending dread, claustrophobia, paranoia, and powerlessness. This elevates horror to a level we rarely see and makes it some of the most realistic, and therefore least fun, horror ever seen in film. The true enjoyment to be gleaned from this movie is the dissection of it – the study of how such minimalist pieces done so well can make for such an intense film. If that is your thing, then I can nearly guarantee you will love It Comes at Night. But, if you are going in to see a standard scream fest, you will not only be disappointed, you may honestly be devastated. It Comes at Night is not for the faint of heart, and it’s one I recommend to only a very select few, but for those select few who can really get into how a less is more take on film making can get to us on such a deeply emotional level then this suddenly becomes a must see film.