Review: It Comes at Night creeps up you and haunts you in your sleep

To celebrate the VOD release of It Comes at Night, here is my original review of the film:

In which the unknown proves it can be scarier than any monster.

What is a horror film? What does a film need to show to be considered a horror film? Of course it needs to be scary. But in what way? Do you need blood? A murderer? A monster? What if the monster comes from within?

That is a difficult question that has hurt a lot of this recent, indie horror films, including It Comes at Night. Both the amazing poster and trailer showed a very different film than the actual product.

If you saw the trailer you probably already have a mental image of what the film is about, and it most likely involves some supernatural element with lots of jump-scares and something, and It that invades a house.

But without spoiling the plot of It Comes at Night, I should warn you to adjust your expectations, because this is not a typical horror film.

This film suffers from the same problem every so-called post-horror film suffers. In recent years, the more quiet, almost intellectual horror films like The VVitch have presented a bit of a marketing problem. How do you sell a slow-burn horror film with a 2 minute trailer? The answer isn’t easy to come up with, and it has created critically acclaimed films that polarized the audience that expected a more graphic slasher, like the trailer sold.

Instead we get a film where an unnamed illness kills a large part of the population before It Comes at Night begins. It doesn’t necessarily bring the bodies back to life, but it stills feels a bit like Night of the Living Dead, only mixed with a good dose of post-apocalypse from The Road.

This doesn’t mean It Comes at Night isn’t scary. The film doesn’t need a monster, because fear and paranoia are the ones haunting the characters, and a red door – already the focus of much of the marketing for the film – is a big source of fear.

The use of natural light makes It Comes at Night even scarier.

With Krisha, director Trey Edward Shults showed that he could make a small, intimate film which could still be as scary as a full on horror film.

Now Shults proves that atmosphere can be as important to horror as a physical monster, in a tense film that creeps up on you in a way I hadn’t seen since The VVitch. Characters talk in long scenes with no cuts, all while fear and paranoia gets them to do serious and violent things.

Right at the center of this stands Joel Edgerton, who plays Paul, a man who wants nothing more than to protect his family from a world they don’t trust anymore. Edgerton is no unknown for horror fans, after having written, directed and starred in the brilliant The Gift. He now shows great competence for playing serious and dark characters who find themselves in incredible situations.

The relatively newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr. also does a magnificent job playing Travis, a kid caught in the middle of a game of trust, who also has to fight his own sexual awakening when a young couple moves into his house, all while having increasingly scarier nightmares.

Cinematographer Drew Daniels should get a lot of the credit for this film, because it is a wonder to look at. He shows beauty in horror and shadows. Long takes of narrow places give you a sense of claustrophobia. His use of natural light only increases the shadows in each scene, and with the the horror. But also he does something I haven’t seen in a horror film before. He and writer/director Trey Edward Shults play with the aspect ratio of the film to show you when Travis is sleeping, as soon as he goes to bed, the screen gets smaller and black bars appear on the top and bottom.

This is also used masterfully during the last act of the film, where the film’s reality gets hauntingly close to the stuff of nightmares.

An unnamed, but omnipotent illness has killed most of the population of It Comes at Night.

Are you a fan of The Walking Dead‘s tagline Fight the dead, Fear the living? Then you will love It Comes at Night. The film follows Alfred Hitchcock’s classic example of why suspense is better than being surprised – or in this case, better than jump-scares.

Hitchcock would talk about having two people sitting by a table and talking, when suddenly a bomb explodes. This will of course shock the audience. But if you show the bomb before showing the two people, you create suspense,  regardless of whether the bomb explodes.

Shults gets it, and he uses suspense to it’s full effect in It Comes at Night. We get scenes of long and narrow hallways, and a red door on the other side. We don’t know what’s behind the door, but we know the characters are afraid of it.

It Comes at Night is a film that doesn’t need jump-scared to make you think about what you saw days after the film is over, or to keep you awake all night. After all, isn’t that what you want from a horror film?

Grade: Opening Night

How I grade films

 

This review was originally published in the Norwegian magazine Kinomagasinet.no

 

 

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