The 2010’s have been a phenomenal decade for horror fans thus far. With potential future classics like The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch, a new wave of young and independent directors are stepping into the spotlight with inventively clever and creative films all to deliver a single emotion: fear. Though popular horror is often plagued with predictable tropes and cheap scares (especially the slasher and torture porn subgenres), the genre has also long been a vessel for imaginative filmmaking, bounded only by the need to elicit tension and dread in its audience. Of course, most horror today does much more than scare its viewers. The Babadook and It Follows, for example, both use their monsters to weave in and address personal and societal anxieties; the former deals with the fears of parenting and the struggles of grief, while the latter tackles the role of sexuality in adolescence. It Comes at Night, the latest in this style of indie horror and sophomore effort from Trey Edward Shults, is quite different from the three aforementioned titles in that it does not use supernatural elements to scare its audience. Instead, the film uses ordinary people as its monster, more thematically alike to Klimov’s war tragedy Come and See than The Witch.
Set after a deadly virus has wiped out most of humanity, It Comes at Night follows Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). The film opens with a shot of Travis’s grandfather (David Pendleton), who has contracted the virus. He has black puss-dripping scabs all over his body, and his breath is rasping and wheezy. In an incredibly bleak opening, the film depicts Paul and Travis as they push him outside in a wheelbarrow into a grave, place a pillow over his face, and put a bullet in his head. This opening sets the brutal, oppressive atmosphere of grief and anxiety for the rest of the film that only ever briefly stops for breath. A few days after the family’s loss, they are awoken in the middle of the night by a stranger breaking into their home. After subduing and questioning him, Paul learns that the man (Christopher Abbott) is named Will and he was looking for water for his wife and child. Sarah suggests that Will’s family come live with them, reasoning that they can’t just let him leave, and that their home would be easier to defend with greater numbers. Will and his wife Kim (Riley Keough) agree, and the future results of their decision are devastating.
When It Comes at Night begins, the horror elements of the movie are left largely undefined, causing some frustrating confusion in audiences. A great deal of this is due to the film’s misleading marketing, which painted a very different picture of what the movie was about than what it actually turned out to be. There is an undeniable hint of the supernatural in the trailers that is notably absent from the film as it progresses. At its start, the atmosphere’s dread is mostly carried by scenes of Travis’s nightmares, which is coincidentally where the marketing drew much of its footage. Within these sequences, Travis sees various disturbing visions, including his diseased grandfather sitting on his bed, Will’s wife kissing him and vomiting syrupy blood into his mouth, and his arms covered with pus-filled scabs and contusions. Within these scenes, the aspect ratio of the film also changes from the traditional 2.35:1 widescreen to a claustrophobic 2.55:1, subliminally cuing the audience that the scenes are not reality and giving them a feverish feeling of tunnel vision.
While these sequences are certainly creepy, they can only go so far in scaring the audience. After all, if the nightmares are nothing but (and are clearly signified as nightmares by the change in aspect ratio), what is there to be afraid of? Ultimately, Travis’s nightmares only serve as a framework for the film’s true horror to fill in, effectively setting up the suffocating undercurrent of survivalist dread. Shortly after Will and his family move in, Travis is awoken from a particularly unsettling dream to a noise in the house. He finds Will’s son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), asleep on the floor of his grandfather’s old room having a nightmare of his own. After carrying him back to his parents’ room, Travis hears a banging on the house’s only door to the outside world, and rushes to wake everyone. The rest of the household finds the door ajar and the family dog that previously ran away sick and dying. Discovering that they don’t know how the door opened, the two families agree at Paul’s request that they separate and quarantine themselves for a couple of days to ensure the sickness didn’t infect any of them. Travis leaves his family’s room early one morning to spy on the other family, and overhears Andrew crying and Will telling Kim they should leave. This event leads to a memorably bleak and harrowing confrontation that stays on your mind long after the credits roll.
At the film’s climax, the cinematography adopts the same aspect ratio previously reserved for Travis’s nightmares. The black bars at the top and bottom start to close in to an unbearably cramped 3.00:1 and the film switches to a handheld camera to relentlessly accentuate the sickening events being depicted. It Comes at Night signifies at this point that there is zero difference between reality and nightmares.
The success of horror, like comedy, hinges entirely on its audience and what they are afraid of. It Comes at Night is no different. With the cruel and violent actions of ordinary people serving as the thesis for the film’s horror, it will undoubtedly not work for everyone. Often, the film acts like a drama so tragic it becomes horrifying, rather than a pure horror experience. The film conveys a tribalistic sort of fear, one that leaves you wanting to lock yourself away from the outside world, one that leaves you nauseous, cynical, and paranoid. It Comes at Night doesn’t always soar, but its existence as a horror film without a defined antagonist alone makes it a worthy entry amongst its modern peers, and certainly an achievement for the genre.