It Comes at Night is a highly misleading title for this film. Actually, everything about the marketing campaign is misleading. It’s not really a traditional horror film at all. Aside from a few disturbing images and jump scares, its primary focus is horror of the psychological and atmospheric sort, rather than any physical monsters.
Of course, this brand of horror is very much to my taste. The most frightening things, I’ve always believed, are not what we see, but rather what we imagine. Ultimately, the root of all horror is the unknown, because in it the human mind traces all the most terrible threats.
And from this, it should follow that It Comes at Night would be a truly terrifying film after all, because it certainly provides the audience with plenty of unknowns. But in spite of that, it’s not as scary as one might expect.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll begin by summarizing the plot–don’t read ahead if you don’t want to know the spoilers.
The film follows Paul (Joel Edgerton) his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who live in a large fortified house in the woods, sheltered from a mysterious virus that is wiping out the population. The opening scenes show Sarah’s father dying from the disease, forcing Paul to shoot him and burn his body to stop it from spreading.
Later, a man tries to break into the house, and is captured by Paul. After confirming he does not have the disease, the man, whose name is Will (Christopher Abbott), says that his family is staying are some miles away. He had come to Paul’s house in search of supplies, thinking it was abandoned.
Paul and Will drive into the woods and bring Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andrew (Griffin Faulkner) back to the house, along with some food and livestock.
At first, the families get along and work well together. But soon, they become paranoid and distrustful of one another, and things take a turn for the worse.
Travis’s dog Stanley runs off into the woods. Travis chases after him, drawing a harsh rebuke from his father. Later that night, Travis awakes from a nightmare–an increasingly common occurrence for him–to hear Andrew crying in his sleep. He finds him sleeping in his late grandfather’s room, and returns him to Will and Kim’s bedroom.
After this, he hears a noise downstairs at the door and goes to investigate. He finds the door ajar and runs to warn his father. Paul and Will find a wounded Stanley lying outside the door, and have no choice but to shoot him.
After this, the two families begin to argue over who might be responsible for the open door. Travis suggests the sleep-walking Andrew may have opened it. Kim suggests maybe Travis was groggy and that the door wasn’t really open.
Paul decides the two families should go to separate rooms for a few days. They agree, but Travis wakes from another nightmare to hear Andrew crying again. He goes to the attic and listens to Will and Kim saying they need to leave. Travis tells his parents he thinks Andrew may be infected.
Paul goes to their room to check on them, but quickly begins to fight with Will. In the ensuing fight, Sarah shoots and kills Will. Kim and Andrew flee, but are also gunned down by Paul, who was badly wounded in the fight with Will.
All are horrified by this, and Travis becomes ill. Soon, the sores of the virus begin appearing on his body, and he loses consciousness while Sarah tries to comfort him. A shot of a sobbing Paul implies Travis has died. Paul and Sarah are seen sitting at the kitchen table, Travis’s empty chair between them, staring silently at one another.
I was interested to see what they would say in this scene. What conclusions would they draw from the unimaginable horrors they had witnessed? Would they turn on one another? Would one have to kill the other? It seemed the pieces were in place for an interesting dénouement.
Except there isn’t one. The screen goes black and the credits roll. And we are left to wonder: what the hell was that?
It’s hard to know what it was. For one, it’s debatable whether it was even a horror movie. It had many of the hallmarks of the “zombie apocalypse” genre, except with no zombies and very little apocalypse.
The horror writer Montague Rhodes James famously wrote stories that appeared to be unremarkable Victorian dramas, which he would use to lull his readers into a false sense of security before springing his trap of a few carefully-worded lines of shocking horror. Imagine a Jane Austen-like novel with a few paragraphs of Lovecraftian abominations sprinkled in.
It Comes at Night is the reverse of this. It bears the trappings of post-apocalyptic horror, yet at times is more of a social drama. Granted, it does turn horrific as the two families’ distrust boils over into violence.
It reminded me a little of an old Twilight Zone episode: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, in which a simple power outage causes the residents of a peaceful suburb to become paranoid and turn against each other.
Similarly, in It Comes at Night, the ultimate horror is wrought by the desperation of ordinary people in a dire situation. Just as the monsters never actually need to show themselves on Maple Street, nothing ever does come at night–unless we are to understand that Travis’s nightmares are the underpinning of it all.
A word about these nightmares: they are where the majority of the film’s more typically “scary” scenes take place–mostly these are jump scares and gross-out scenes, which immediately signal that Travis will wake up. On one occasion, Travis awakes from one nightmare, only for something else horrible to happen, which he then wakes from again.
This nightmare-within-a-nightmare idea worked to create a sense of doubt about how much of the film was “real”–you never could be sure after that whether he might wake up again. However, interesting as this was, it was not explored as fully as it should have been.
If you want to mess with the audience’s understanding of what is “real” for dramatic effect, you have to first convince them that the initial setup is real, and then start undermining it later on. After all, everyone knows intellectually that movies aren’t “real”–people have to believe before they can question their belief.
It Comes at Night never completely establishes the ground rules for its setting, even though as an audience we are conditioned to accept the “virus apocalypse” clichés. It all feels surreal from the beginning, and so when things get weird… well, they don’t seem truly weird. It just seems like what you would expect from a disease-ravaged post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Despite all of this, I wouldn’t say it is a bad film. The acting is terrific, especially that of Edgerton. In fact, Edgerton’s presence was the main reason I went to see this film, and his performance did not disappoint. He is truly a master a playing a tough-but-vulnerable man, trying his best to survive in a brutal world. He not only can communicate a great deal of emotion simply with a slight change of expression, but also even with a lack of change in expression–he knows just when and how to use his poker face.
The characters are well-sketched, although I was a little bothered by how little time is spent on the two female characters, especially Sarah. At times, they were treated as little more than support staff for the men. I didn’t care for that, but in fairness, there wasn’t much time for character development.
What is most interesting to me about It Comes at Night is that my complaints about it are largely the same criticisms that others have made about my own writing: that it is too vague, too heavy on atmosphere and “implied” horror, and that the endings are rushed and inconclusive.
So, I think I know what it was supposed to be, and I can see how it got its flaws. I’ve made many of the same mistakes myself. When you know what atmosphere you are trying to create, and what you are trying to imply, it’s easy to forget your audience probably doesn’t.
My suggestion would have been to play it more as a straight-up zombie horror flick at first–make it seem like armies of plague victims are going to come pouring out of the woods. Then subvert that, little by little, and let the film’s true nature as a tragic psychological drama gradually be revealed.
As it is, it’s a rather disappointing and depressing film. But to its credit, it is ambitious, and that does count for something. Not enough to make it good, but enough that it at least deserves attention. If you go expecting a dark, experimental drama rather than a true horror film, you are more likely to see its merits.