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.
I think it was somewhere in the arboretum of the TranStar corporation’s Talos I space station, about six hours into Prey, that I started to realize what was wrong.
Something had been gnawing at me; a vague sense of discomfort in the back of my mind. It wasn’t the apprehension that every object in every room might turn out to be an alien mimic waiting to ambush me, nor was it the thought that at any minute the possessed remains of crew members might teleport in to attack me with psychic energy blasts.
No, these things I had expected, and indeed become accustomed to.
In fact, that was the problem. What was really bothering me was that none of it was all that scary.
Prey sounds like a game almost engineered to my personal taste. It’s a horror RPG in which you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist on a space station overtaken by mysterious aliens called “the Typhon”. As you explore the station and fight the Typhon, you gradually uncover the backstory by reading logs of deceased crew members, and talking with the few survivors. All the while, you must overcome obstacles placed by Morgan’s brother, Alex–the scientist who seems to be responsible for the disaster.
Some of the Typhon, called “mimics”, have the ability to take any form, including such innocuous items as coffee mugs and even health kits and other useful items. So, you never know what might turn into a monster and attack as you creep through the dark, eerie corridors.
In addition to the usual video game weapons–pistols, shotguns, etc.–Morgan can use an experimental technology called “neuromods”, which grant the user all sorts of abilities, but can erase the user’s memory–a significant point, as it accounts for why Morgan has no memory of events that occurred before the beginning of the game. (This is explained by a character named January–a robot assistant who holds Morgan’s memories and acts as a guide in the early stages of the game.)
Prey has multiple paths and endings, and many different ways of accomplishing your objectives–a style of gameplay I strongly prefer. And to top it all off, Chris Avellone, perhaps the greatest game designer ever, helped write it.
With all this going for it, I was a bit dismayed by how weak the first act was.
Not that it’s bad. It’s good enough. Especially the opening 20 minutes or so; which are very disconcerting and disturbing. Not since Spec Ops: The Line has a game so successfully pulled the rug out from under me. But I’ll talk more about that later. (This is probably a good time to mention I’m going to spoil the game’s plot here, so don’t proceed any further if you want to play it without knowing what happens.)
I reference Spec Ops because it’s another favorite game of mine–again, Prey mimics elements from many of the classics. There are elements of Bioshock(takes place in a remote futuristic art-deco station) Half-Life, (the mimics look like headcrabs) Alan Wake(the shadowy phantoms murmur phrases spoken by the victims they now possess) and Dishonored. (This is only to be expected, since both are made by Arkane studios.) Indeed, there’s so much mimicry here, it makes the clever “not a mimic” marketing slogan seem rather ironic.
And yet… it doesn’t quite work as well as it should in the the beginning. And by “the beginning”, I mean approximately the first five hours after the opening sequence.
It’s like how all-star teams in sports don’t necessarily play up to the potential of all the great players on the roster. This is usually because all-star teams don’t have time to develop chemistry–the sense of timing that makes a team function well as a unit.
Something similar is going on with Prey: it is built up of some very excellent parts, but they don’t always work together to create a coherent whole.
It’s not always clear what Prey is supposed to be. A lot of it looks like survival horror, but it’s not particularly scary. (One exception is an enemy called the Poltergeist. It’s invisible and causes all sorts of disruptions. Very effective, especially the first time it happens.)
Prey‘s setting is also somewhat puzzling. It’s set in an alternate future in which John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, and the U.S. and Soviets worked together on space exploration. But it’s not clear to me why this background was needed for the story. It felt like a gimmick.
Then there are the graphics. They are good, but strangely cartoonish, which makes it hard to take anything seriously. I had this same problem with Bioshock and Dishonored as well. The people in these games all have soft, caricatured features, which creates a feeling of unreality.
I’m not sure why this particular style bothers me more than the outdated graphics of older games like Deus Ex or even Doom 3, but somehow it does.
It is probably true that if I weren’t so well-versed in the simulated experience of exploring a creepy station overrun by monsters, the beginning of Prey might have been a lot more intriguing. If you haven’t played Doom 3 or Bioshock or System Shock 2 or Half-Life orDead Spaceor the Fallout: New Vegas add-onDead Money or… well, if you haven’t played many survival/horror games, everything in Prey will be new and interesting.
To get back to the Arboretum, where I first began to have thoughts of just giving up on Prey–well, I didn’t. I pressed on, and was soon rewarded for my efforts. Because not too long after this, I started to run into some survivors with whom I could actually interact, as opposed to just constantly sneaking around in the dark, trying to alternately fight and run away from the Typhon.
The game really picks up once you start to meet some of the other characters. One suspects there must be a behind-the-scenes reason for this…
Don’t know the exact %, but I did some of the supporting cast (Igwe, Mikhaila, the Cook, Sarah, Danielle/Abigail, etc.) and some lore bits.
Helping officer Sarah Elazar and her men prepare for and then win a battle against Typhon forces massed in a cargo bay was the first really satisfying part of the game, and meeting some characters I cared about (who weren’t already dead) made me feel much more invested in the plot.
Even better were the quests involving Mikhaila Ilyushin. She guides you through a section of the station, and eventually you have the opportunity to get her some life-saving medicine. It’s an optional quest, but really satisfying to complete.
Mikhaila was my favorite character in the game, because the quests relating to her are both rewarding and emotionally “true”. After returning to Morgan’s office, she asks you to find data about her father that is stored in the station’s archives. On finding it, it reveals that Morgan ordered her father’s death. You have the choice of whether to tell her about this, or destroy the evidence. In the end, telling her is ultimately the right choice. “Honesty is the best policy…”
Between her and the security personnel in the cargo bay, I started to care about the story in a way I hadn’t for the first six hours or so. And so I found myself once again heading to the arboretum to meet with Alex, and hear his explanation for the whole thing.
On reaching his office, you learn that in fact everything he’s been doing has been to fulfill orders previously given to him by… you. Alex isn’t evil; he’s just doing what he believed the “real” Morgan would have wanted him to do, before neuromods and other experiments changed his sibling into someone he no longer recognizes.
This was a very powerful plot twist, because the game does a good job of making you hate Alex in the beginning, and then does an equally good job of making you want to work with him. The switch is accomplished very economically, and does not feel at all forced or contrived.
Alex explains that the key to understanding the Typhon has to do with the “coral”–a mysterious luminescent substance they have woven throughout the station as they have taken it over. After you study it further, it confirms what Alex claims Morgan initially suspected: the coral is a neural network.
For me, this development happened at about the 15 hour mark, and I was really getting into the game at this point. I returned to the arboretum (Alex’s office is there) to bring back the data I had collected and upload it for analysis. This, I figured, would trigger the endgame sequence.
But no–the upload gets interrupted by a surprise attack from a mercenary named Walther Dahl. He’s been sent by the TranStar corporation to steal back all the data and kill everyone on the station.
He’s also the most annoying character in the entire game. He blows in at the eleventh hour with his army of military robots, totally disrupting the pace of the narrative. He may have been referenced earlier in the story–although I sure don’t remember it–but certainly not in any way that counts as meaningful foreshadowing. My reaction to his arrival wasn’t “oh, wow; it’s that Walther Dahl guy I heard about earlier”, but instead “who the hell are you?”
It reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s mockery of a common trope in detective novels that explains the crime by concluding: “It was the work of one of the most audacious criminals ever heard of (except that the reader never heard of him till this second)”.
Even worse, Dahl undercuts the main enemy of the game, the Typhon. It’s like in Mass Effect 2 and especially 3, when Cerberus and the Illusive Man kept getting in the way of fighting the Reapers.
I actually found myself rooting for and counting on the Typhon to get rid of Dahl’s inexplicable army of robots for me. This is detrimental to the plot in two different ways: first, it makes you feel sympathy for what had previously been an unambiguous enemy; and second, it undercuts the Typhon’s effectiveness–they can’t be that powerful, if Dahl was able to show up and take over the station in the space of about five minutes.
This whole sequence was undoubtedly the weakest point of the game, and it took about two hours to resolve. (In fairness, defeating Dahl was extremely satisfying, but not so much as to justify his existence in the first place.)
So now, I found myself going back to the arboretum yet again, to do the same thing I had been about to do two hours before, prior to the pointless Dahl episode. And that wasn’t even the worst thing about it–but I’ll get to that later.
There had been several points throughout the game where it seemed like they were just throwing obstacles at me to make everything as hard as possible. There were quests that went something like this:
“Go get some files from a computer on the other side of the station.”
<Goes there, fighting and hiding from Typhon all the way>
“Oh, the door is broken. You have to get parts to fix it.”
“Shoot, the power’s out. Backtrack and turn it on.”
<Goes back; fights more Typhon>
“Hey, the power is out because the reactor is broken. Fix it.”
<Rebuilds nuclear reactor>
“What were we doing again?”
This had been frustrating enough, but the Dahl interruption was just too much. I prefer games in which each objective involves uncovering new information that advances the plot, rather than have most of the objectives be about doing busywork that eventually uncovers information that advances the plot. It felt at times like they were just dragging it out. And this turned out to be a big problem, but again, more about that later.
Once the coral data is analyzed, Alex explains that the coral is used by the Typhon to transmit a signal. Morgan, he continues, had suspected this from the beginning and had designed a device that could destroy the Typhon by taking over the neural network. He suggests using this, instead of following January’s suggestion of activating the station’s self-destruct mechanism.
At this point, a massive Typhon creature appears from deep space and begins to consume the entire station. Morgan then has to choose between whether to destroy the station and the Typhon along with it, or activate the device and destroy the Typhon but keep all the research and technology the team on Talos I has developed.
I chose the latter. I’m always a big one for keeping knowledge–same reason I always leave the Collector base intact at the end of Mass Effect 2. It never hurts to have more technology at your disposal; you can always choose not to use it if you don’t want to.
In either ending, the Typhon are destroyed, and the credits roll. But Prey still has one final twist in store. And it’s significant enough that even though I warned you about spoilers earlier, I’m putting it after the page break…
I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)
I have a tradition of watching a horror movie around Halloween. This year, I selectedThe Thing because Joel Edgerton is in it, and I’ve thought he is one of the best actors around ever since I saw him inJane Got A Gun earlier this year.
The Thing is a prequel to a 1982 film of the same name. I haven’t seen that one, but from what I have read, the plots of the two films are the same: a team of researchers in the Antarctic are terrorized by an alien life-form that can disguise itself as a human being.
It is a strong setting. The isolated Antarctic has potential for an eerie atmosphere, and the shape-shifting monster attacking the trapped team could have made for a tense, Alien-like horror picture.
I say “could have” because it squandered its potential. The biggest flaw was the wildly inconsistent behavior of the monster. It would attack people, replicate them exactly, and seemingly copy all their memories and knowledge. Sounds pretty smart, until you realize that in its normal form, The Thing was powerful enough to just wipe out everyone there with brute force.
Also, it was a major plot point that The Thing could only copy organic material; not artificial stuff like fillings in teeth. Again, this was a cool idea, but it was completely contradicted by the fact that The Thing apparently could copy the clothes its victims were wearing, because whenever it appeared in disguise as another human, it was always dressed identically to the real person prior to their demise.
None of the characters were especially memorable–Edgerton’s was probably one of the better ones, but that may have just been because he was the only actor with whom I was familiar. The heroine of the movie, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is not bad, but the script is muddled as to whether she is supposed to be just a regular scientist fighting to survive or an Ellen Ripley type of character.
In the end, The Thing suffered from the most common problem in all horror fiction: it showed the monster too much, instead of relying on characters and atmosphere to create a mood of fright and tension.
“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.” [He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.]—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146
On June 6, 2014, I was struck with the inspiration for a novella. It came to me in a flash as I was riding in the car. I had just begun work on what would become The Start of the Majestic Worlda few weeks earlier, but the idea for this other book came to me so close to fully-formed that I felt compelled to write it down. I finished the first draft in August of 2014, and then spent the next year editing it.
What was remarkable about the experience was how easily it all came to me. Normally (for me, anyway) writing a story is a difficult and tedious process. I have a general idea what I want to do, but filling in all the details is a long, painful ordeal.
Not on this one. 90% of it came to me in the space of a day. Everything from a detailed plot structure to the characters to minor bits of description and lines of dialogue appeared ready-made. It was almost as though the book wrote itself. Not only that, but I very quickly became convinced it was the best story I had ever written.
So why, given that, haven’t I already published it, since I wrapped it up over a year ago?
Well, the thing is, it’s really, really dark.
Most of my stories are horror, or at least have horror elements. I’ve written stories involving human sacrifice, murder, torture, demonic possession, and all sorts of other disturbing things. So it’s not like I’m a stranger to grim subject matter.
But this was different. It was creepier than even some of the stuff that Colonel Preston did in Majestic World that I ultimately cut for being too disturbing. And the ease with which it all came to me only made it more troubling.
I did a lot of soul-searching after writing this book. That sounds dramatic, but I really did start to wonder about what kind of mind would come up with this kind of story.
A lot of things have changed in my life since I first got the idea to write it, and for whatever reason, I haven’t felt the same desire to write horror since I finished it.
I was thinking about this recently, ever since the calendar turned to October. I still love this month, and Halloween, and spooky stories–but I think I want to return to writing less intense stories; more on the order of The Revival,that stresses atmosphere and mood. And maybe I’ll dabble in other genres as well.
With all that said, I am thinking of publishing this book soon. I spent the time to write it, so I think it is worth putting out into the world.
[Plot spoilers abound–but the power of this book is not in its plot, but rather in its atmosphere, so I don’t think it is ruined even if you know what happens. But, fair warning…]
Annihilation is about a team of scientists–a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and an anthropologist–sent to explore a mysterious region called “Area X”. This place was created by some unexplained disaster called “the Event” many years in the past, and the 11 previous teams sent there have either disappeared or, more disturbingly, returned as mere shells of their former selves.
The biologist narrates the story, beginning with the team’s entrance into Area X. The main features of the landscape are a lighthouse on the coast and a structure which most of the team calls a “tunnel”, but which the biologist refers to as a “tower”.
Almost immediately, they begin to encounter strange phenomena–eerie moaning sounds at dusk, and then, a strange and disturbing line of writing created seemingly in plant-life on the wall of the tower/tunnel.
Before long, the team begins to distrust one another. The biologists sees the psychologist hypnotize the others, while remaining impervious to it herself. The anthropologist is killed in the tower, by what the biologist believes to be a creature writing on the interior of the tower.
It soon becomes apparent that the biologist is not a reliable narrator, as she gradually reveals important details like the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition–one of those who returned as a mere shell, before dying of cancer months after returning home.
No one and nothing is entirely reliable in Area X, and this is part of what gives the tale its unnerving atmosphere. VanderMeer skillfully creates a mood of gnawing dread by introducing this uncertainty. Other writers would do well to mimic his method of creating fear through implication and speculation rather than through blood and gore.
Eventually, when it appears the psychologist has betrayed them, the biologist makes her way towards the lighthouse on the coast, leaving the surveyor behind at their camp after arguing with her. At the lighthouse, she finds a strange picture of the lighthouse keeper from before “the Event” and, even more significantly, a huge pile of journals from previous expeditions–far more than the 11 that “officially” were supposed to have taken place.
Finally, she finds her husband’s journal, but does not read it. She exits the lighthouse and finds the psychologist lying wounded outside. She has been attacked by the same creature–which the biologist now calls “the Crawler” assumed to be responsible for writing on the wall of the tower.
After a brief exchange, the psychologist dies and the biologist makes her way back to the camp. Along the way, she encounters the creature responsible for the eerie moaning noise, though she escapes and never actually sees it. After that, she is shot by the surveyor, but is able to withstand it, apparently due to some infection or other mutation resulting from her time in the tower.
She shoots the surveyor, and then returns to camp to make final preparations to explore the tunnel and find the Crawler. She reads through the journals she collected from the lighthouse, concluding with her husband’s. His account describes he and his fellow team members seeing their doppelgangers entering the Tower–suggesting that these doppelgangers are the entities that returned from Area X to the outside world. Most significantly, his journal is largely addressed to the biologist; and is meant to express his feelings for her.
To me, this was the most extraordinary part of the entire book. While she has at times discussed her relationship with her husband, and how its deterioration ultimately led him to volunteer to go to Area X, her tone has always been cold and detached. When she reads the journal and realizes that her husband made the journey largely as part of a desire to connect with her, and regrets that she never tried to connect with him in the same way, her tone changes–real emotion comes through.
It’s a surprisingly romantic and touching passage–only a few paragraphs, but very moving. Like Victor LaValle in his excellent Ballad of Black Tom, VanderMeer has succeeded in imbuing his tale of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with real human emotion–no mean feat, given that the genre’s creator premised it on the insignificance of humanity.
After reading the journals, the biologist enters the Tower and finds the Crawler–a suitably mind-warping encounter with the indescribable, in the best Lovecraftian tradition. At the center of the unimaginable, incomprehensible thing, she sees the face of the lighthouse keeper from the photograph, providing some hint at the creature’s origin.
After this last encounter, the biologist decides to follow her husband’s last recorded plan which was to go to an island off the shore. The book ends on an ambiguous and yet strangely bittersweet note.
I have said that the core of Annihilation is not its plot, but rather its atmosphere. Reading what I have outlined here does not give you the sense of it. VanderMeer writes the sort of story I love: an undefined time and place, with the tension residing in the eerie setting and the horror being the horror of doubting one’s own sanity. He has written the book that At The Mountains of Madness wanted to be.
There are some flaws–early on, I felt it was bogged down too much by description. (Though I have frequently been found guilty of too little description.) He uses the expression “far distant” too much, and occasionally the biologist’s detached, scientific tone would be jarred by the use of a word like “scary”, which seemed too simplistic to me.
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
…then Annihilation serves as the very model of a weird tale.
The day dawned dark and grim As I arose from the depths of nightmare. I gazed with fear my window from And saw the streets outside were bare. The city was deserted, a gilded grave of glass. I started out upon the street, And not a soul I met as I went along; For none was there to meet. The sun shone green betwixt the clouds, A cast of light I never saw; And the wind blew strong and cold, The air was harsh and raw. And then at last, an empty highway on, I met what might have been my twin– Save the empty sockets for his eyes, And his cacodaemoniac grin. He smirked, as if ‘t were all some joke. And then he melted to a bloody pulp. And it was then–I think–that I awoke.
The hour was late, and the guardsman held his lonely vigil. A moonless night, disturbed only by things which might be; The imagined things which almost don’t exist, but leave their sigil Imprinted on the black depths of humanity’s genetic memory.
As the guard gazes into the night, what monsters may be there? Whence come the phantasmal sounds that make him raise his gun? Is the darkness populated with fiends, lurking everywhere– Or are the beasts loosed within his brain, content therein to run?
Is it a comfort to say that tales of these abominations Are products of our minds; some mentally abhorrent whim? If the vilest of monsters are the works of our imaginations, Then what kind of things are we who have imagined them?