Sunday 6 August 2017

Review: It Comes at Night

Year: 2017
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Riley Keough.

Synopsis is here:

It Comes at Night has been marketed as a typical horror film. I’m sure that there were a few people who saw posters and trailers and assumed that it would be the type of bland, stereotypical nonsense that leaks out into cinemas at the arse-end of January or the back end of the Netflix new release queue. Not so.

It Comes at Night found itself referenced in Steve Rose’s Guardian article which tries to make that argument that the film is part of a newly termed (by Rose himself) post-horror movement, in which films which don’t run the course of a so called conventional horror film, like say The Conjuring (2013), are slowly taking over at the multiplex. The problem with a term such as post-horror is that quite simply, it's the type of term used by people, who don’t seem to be particularly interested in the genre. At one-point Rose states as a result of successful titles such as Split (2017) and Get Out (2017) means, as a result, there’s now a market for horrors with low budget and mass appeal. Most people who enjoy horror films know that this has been the case for decades and not just now.

The same goes for the very idea of post-horror. In the documentary The American Nightmare (2000), director Adam Simon details many of the so-called aspects of post horror that Rose depicts. While true that a modern glut of films has brought around a sense of “refinement” to the ideas Rose describes. What Trey Edward Shults brings across in his second feature are the same types of concerns and societal anxieties that inhabit horror films since the likes of George A Romero appeared on the scene. Things don’t jump out at you during Romero’s Martin (1978), David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), but we certainly accept the existential dread that comes with them.

Much like Shults first film, Krisha (2016) It Comes at Night is a film in which the horror comes from regular people reaching deep inside them to do horrific things. It opens with a family being forced into the difficult decision to extinguish the life of an elderly member suffering from an unknown epidemic which has – from what we know – ravaged America as we know it.  Shults opens his film almost exactly like his debut feature: with an older face framed in extreme close-up. Despite looking at a stranger, Shults manages to portray familiarity, uncertainty and fear in a few short moments. He also sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The atmosphere is one of intense grief and paranoia as we follow a family struggling to survive a contagious disease which has taken hold of the nation. Tempers flare when a second family interrupt their secluded sanctuary.

It Comes at Night feels quite plain when laid out on paper. In execution, it’s an exceptionally deft piece of work from a filmmaker who has quickly developed an authoritative vision on screen. Much like Get Out (2017) or Polanski’s apartment trilogy, Shults is an auteur that understands and utilises the idea that what can destroy us is simple mistrust. The horror that unravels within the film comes from the simple fact that with the right amount of pressure, decent people will do horrific things.
Shults mostly eschews overt violence and, like his previous feature focuses fully on mood. Save for one sequence, there are no ‘BOO’ moments, merely a steady feeling of unease that parades throughout. The camera set-ups are simple. Nothing complex. But the use of slow foreboding zooms, tight close-ups and powerful use of sound help bring around an inescapable feeling of dread. Tension builds as we quickly realise that the events that occur could be easily avoidable, yet the very real craving for self-destruction makes everything seem unavoidable. The terror stems from our wish to pick at the frayed edges of our humanity. To tongue the cut roof of the mouth. To pick at the scabs.

It Comes at Night picks an exceptionally on point cast to bring the terror home. You can feel that both Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott’s father figures are striving to make things work for their families. You can really feel that search for catharsis through Kelvin Harrison Jr’s display as Travis. Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are well drafted as the film’s motherly characters and each actor manages to tap into the right amount of feel to bring round the fraught and delicate bonds needed for such a story. Bonds which have their fragility heightened as uncertainty creeps in.

The beauty of the film’s ugliness lies in how well Shults navigates and toys with those processed ideas of the American family. This theme has lingered in American horror films since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1960). It’s apparent that it is these generational and social tensions which trigger something within the filmmaker. It also highlights why the idea of “post-horror” garnered such a negative reaction. It seems to be quite clear that Shults is updating tried and tested ideas for a different generation. For this writer, It Comes at Night works exceedingly well. Understanding the pitfalls of what could be considered “lesser” horror, the film manages to destabilise and unnerve viewers without the simple need to throw guts at the screen or use flagrant jump scares to catch the attention. It Comes at Night’s fears comes from the simple fact that the darkest monsters are the ones who we instil our trust in. When we look back at so much horror through the ages, we realise that it has always been that way.