It Comes at Night (2017)
Of all genres, the dystopian horror film has the greatest potential to disappoint or disturb. Supernatural or science fiction demons might be temporarily unnerving but films about unseen terror can reach deep into our psyche. The film It Comes at Night (2017) is an example of how less is often more in cinema: a low-budget film that avoids the usual digital spooks to focus on primal fear and survival.
The storyline and setting are minimalist. Without any narrative clues, we abruptly join a panicked family in an isolated forest cabin about to dispose of a family member who has broken out in some form of disfiguring sickness. We hear heavy breathing behind masks and follow a still conscious body being dragged through claustrophobic cabin rooms and narrow hallway then outside to a shallow grave. It takes several scenes to piece together what just happened, and all the time the danger remains unseen. This terror atmosphere is maintained throughout the story as we watch a family fighting to survive a futuristic biological catastrophe. The father Paul (Joel Edgerton) has boarded-up and sealed the cabin and everyone must follow strict rules about exposure to the outside. He does whatever it takes to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and rebellious 17-year old son Travis (Kevin Harrison Jnr.) from the contagion. When an intruder breaks in he is dealt with harshly until Paul takes pity and allows him to bring his wife and child to share the cabin. The new family brings deadly risk and eventually chaos.
Rarely do we find a horror film so focused on the nature of fear itself. The “It” of the film’s title lies more within the human psyche than outside. It’s a whirlpool of night shadows, Travis’ coming-of-age nightmares, and the imagined and real danger of contact with anyone outside of the family. The untethered camerawork accentuates the claustrophobic isolation, interspersed with close-ups shots of wide-eyed fear that is palpable. We only know what the camera lets us see and the narrative withholds explanation or backstory, leaving viewers to their imagination. The acting performances of Joel Edgerton and Kevin Harrison are uniformly excellent and allow events to unfold from completely different points of view.
If you are a horror fan expecting blood and gore you will not find it here. Some will still be waiting for the big reveal until the credits and not realise that this is about atmospherics and unseen inner demons. This film works both as a narrative about responding to a dystopian threat and as a psychological study of human potential for destruction. When Paul takes primal laws of survival into his own hands it challenges the viewer to walk in his shoes with a loaded gun and ask “what would I do?” So many horror films fall limp at the finishing line but the final scene of this one will send shivers down your spine.
Director: Trey Edwards Shults
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kevin Harrison Jnr.
A USA production