It Comes At Night: Nightmares in Space and Place

Horror is having something of a renaissance in the mainstream. Or whatever the fuck you can call the mainstream these days. With Vudu, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Studios releasing films theatrically, whatever Plex actually is, jailbroken Fire Sticks, Google Chrome Sticks, YouTube and Twitter entering live media streaming and cable-cutting offers, Twitch livestreaming content 24/7, cable networks like CBS and Starz venturing off for a la carte options, hackers looting servers for giggles and profits, and of course, your neighborhood hustleman offering up the finest shea butters and the latest blockbuster at the swap meet. The market for the majority of eyeballs and minds is…a cinematic cacophony.

And I kinda love it.

Granted, the money always guides the change, which is why I’m here to talk indie-distribution house/movie wunderkind A24’s newest release: It Comes At Night. And no, it’s not a sequel to It Follows.

First off, big ups to A24. They’ve been cagey and cunning enough to spot winners before anyone else, from Moonlight to Green Room to 20th Century Women and more. So I’m interested to see how the reception for this latest flick fares given  their track record.

Secondly, “WTF is going on in It Comes At Night?” you ask. Good question, reader. It Comes At Night is a psychological horror-drama that follows Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in their struggle to survive in the woods. A virulent and gross disease has afflicted society. In the midst of this, a family cloisters themselves in  what looks like Southern Country. That is, until a swarmy-looking Will (Christopher Abbot) literally intrudes on their life. From there, things kinda spiral outta control.

Now, this’ll be a spoiler-free-ish review. So gird your loins and your FUPA (FUDA, FUGA, etc. Idk what’s in your pants, fam.)

It Comes is a haunted house on the hill movie, in the sense that space and place are incredibly important to how horror is constructed and experienced. Big spaces like the woods and the house itself are supposed to be scary; the latter for its ability to imprison and the former for its harboring of the unknown. This isn’t strict either: the woods confine just as much as the house harbors its own dark secrets. In addition, it’s a psychological horror flick because the usage of subjective space is a solid one-third of its content. Travis is a fount of uncertainty, turning our own sense of what is and what isn’t against itself. Put a bit more simply: the woods is a character, the house is a character, and one young Travis is wilding out and we’re strapped in for the ride.

Pictured: Kelvin Harrison Jr. & Joel Edgerton in the 2017 horror film, It Comes At Night. Photo credit: Eric McNatt. Courtesy of A24.
Courtesy of A24.

In this way, It Comes shares a lot with A24 sibling The Witch. The latter used the viewpoints of characters to show us the veil — the thin line between what we know to be true and what we feel to be true. In The Witch, this presented itself often as strange occurrences and things that were obviously supernatural, but were treated and presented as potentially just happenstance (of course until things ramp up through the later parts of the film). While Adam talks about the mechanics of that at length, I’d like to bring that understanding to It Comes. Travis’ POV is never quite reliable. His visions are terrifying. And his reactions are quite believable. And, like The Witch, we often experience the source of horror from his viewpoint until the moment of confrontation: there’s always a sense of the unknown as he looks off camera, our POV centered on *his* reactions.

This is an interesting technique. It forces us to peer from the other side of the horrific veil, effectively sitting next to the monster or source of Travis’ fear. I feel that it heightens a lot of the scarier moments and adds texture to some otherwise rote jump scares and telegraphed spooky moments. Which is a saving grace and connective glue, as how these moments – and the film at large – are shot is gorgeous.

Some of the most horrifying moments utilize minimalist cinematography, giving you just enough light to see, but not enough to feel safe. One particularly haunting scene, wherein Travis makes his way through the house, is about as gut-wrenching as your own sprint against the dark from the living room to the bed when you turn the lights off. However, instead of a sprint, you have to endure his painfully patient steps, and a creeping, chilling sound. It’s artfully done and honestly puts power to the idea of “painting with light,” word to John Alton (I’ve yet to finish that damn book.)

On the flipside, a lot of the terror in this movie also comes from the thematic and situational circumstances in the second and third acts. In them, Will and his family – a wife, Kim (Riley Keough,) and young son Andrew – cohabitate with Paul’s family. In these moments, there’s some happiness, sexual tension and existential moments a la The Walking Dead. And, like TWD, there’s this implicit and explicit understanding of the Apocalyptic Dilemma: who can you trust, exactly?

Pictured: Riley Keough, Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Carmen Ejogo in a scene from the 2017 horror film, It Comes At Night. Photo Credit: Eric McNatt. Courtesy of A24.

While this question is routinely posed and performed between the characters, It Comes also sublimely asks us this question as well. Whose POV do we trust? Whose understanding of events do we consider? Who should we be rooting for, truly? These are all great questions that layer on the tension, considering how quiet and action-less this movie truly is. It Comes is going for the “I can’t figure this shit out” terror that plagues the Internet for months vs. the low-hanging fruit of “I jumped out my seat terror” seen in highlight reels for movies like Paranormal Activity 26: I Flew Her Out & She Was Possessed, Fam.

In the news semi-recently, Joel Edgerton noted that he hoped It Comes would be the next Get Out. At the time, my eyes rolled so heavily into my head that it took a couple hours to see straight. Of course, objectively, his argument made sense: Horror ™ does have a bad rap in the mainstream for being too blunt, too on the nose and too…masturbatory with violence and gore. While true horror heads know this to be mostly bullshit and confined to certain subgenres, it makes sense that the general consumer thinks “boobs, blood and yuck” when they think horror. Which isn’t the genre’s fault.

I’m swerving off the main road here though.

My point is this: Get Out and other recent “thinking man’s” horror movies, for better or worse, helped signal how big of an impact a horror film could have on the culture. In Get Out’s case specifically, I’d argue a lot of that has to do with the context (see: black call-and-response culture, and treating black people as humans in the genres, etc.) But that’s another essay entirely.

However, after watching It Comes, I think Edgerton’s positioning is valid. In line with other tense horror/terror films like The Invitation (aka The Black Woman’s Get Out), Se7en and even Edgerton’s own The Gift, It Comes At Night will make you question everything you see and when you saw it. And, when the lights come up and you’re checking your skin for lesions and hitting that Boosie lean to wipe yourself down with hand sanitizer, It Comes will make you question who’s to blame for how things ultimately went down.

these boots mine.Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following:  IG | Twitter