Being an enthusiast of the horror genre isn’t particularly easy given the crap-to-quality ratio of films released each and every year. I imagine lovers of other genres probably feel similar but sincerely, I feel that horror aficionados exist on a very specific and pronounced plane of frustration, having to wade through equal measures of banality and mediocrity to find even a competent entry worth a two-hour investment.
To further complicate matters, contemporary horror films seem to be struggling through an identity crisis of sorts, with studios adopting a safe, well-worn approach (which in my estimation is dishwater-dull) to the types of horror projects they pursue (i.e. James Wan flicks) and independent filmmakers often classifying their endeavors as horror when in reality they are something else entirely, using the label to attract a certain demographic.
It Comes at Night, which has been heavily marketed as a horror film, is most definitely the latter.
Which is to say it’s not really a horror film at all.
Let me quickly preface the remainder of this review with an understanding that I’m not trying to indulge in some sort of enthusiast-driven snobbery or hair-splitting. This isn’t an academic or myopic rant about what constitutes a “true” horror film. The fact of the matter is that by way of just about any objective metric, It Comes at Night simply isn’t a horror movie.
In actuality, it’s a post-apocalyptic drama; a dour, bleak deliberation on the fragility of society and how rapidly our civility evaporates in the face of existential crisis and impending extinction. It is also not particularly fresh nor insightful given the bevy of films that have already explored this well-trodden thematic.
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ve seen a smattering of post-apocalyptic films over the last year, including Z for Zacharia, Bokeh, and Into the Forest, all of which were released in 2015 or later and all of which are also bleak, character-driven narratives focusing on difficult decisions their respective characters are forced to make in the face of their own encroaching mortality. It’s safe to say the genre at this point seems a bit played out – especially accounting for zombie films which can also be categorized in this subgenre – and truthfully, I enjoyed all of the aforementioned movies better than It Comes at Night, which suffers from a plodding, poorly-paced script that is steeped in the redundancies of the genre, recycling worn tropes to such an extent that the film is entirely predictable in terms of its narrative trajectory.
That isn’t to say it’s a poorly-made film; it most certainly is not. The film is well shot, the cast is excellent, including the always laudable work of Joel Edgerton, playing Paul, a father whose singular goal is to keep his family alive by adhering to a strict, intractable set of rules in the face of a nameless plague that appears to have decimated humanity. He and his wife Sarah (Carmen Elizabeth Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live a purposely sheltered and insulated existence and we are immediately introduced to their uncompromising ethos of survival when Paul is forced to kill Sarah’s father, who is infected and dying, immolating his body immediately afterwards.
The film offers little exposition; the virus and its origins are purposely ambiguous and we are never given the scope or expanse of the contagion. The film sets up and sticks to the family and their microcosm, making it a personal and minimalist endeavor. Eventually, Paul and his kin reluctantly take in another small family, and the film deals with the uneasy day-to-day ebb of flow of their collaborative existence that, unsurprisingly, goes south rapidly once paranoia and fear creep in.
The problem is that outside of some excellent cinematography, It Comes at Night is regrettably banal in the story it tells. With films like The Road and 28 Days Later having already astutely explored the vicious devolution that inevitably accompanies the breakdown of society in the face of a post-apocalyptic world, watching this film and its characters navigate similar circumstances and situations isn’t particularly interesting. There isn’t a single beat in this film that isn’t telegraphed and worse, for a movie that attempts to convey a more grounded notion of an end-of-the-world scenario, it is mystifying how entirely unrealistic and downright stupid the characters are sometimes forced to act, dampening the impact of the subsequent dramatic consequences that follow.
The climax of the film rings particularly false and is entrenched in violent, inhumane extremism on the part of the protagonists that isn’t earned or justified by their prior acts. It’s a nasty but telegraphed ending and it comes off as incredibly hollow, leading to an abrupt resolution that is clearly meant to be artful in its profundity but comes off as borderline pretentious and skirts dangerously close to being pointless.
My biggest gripe however, is that It Comes at Night was marketed and sold as a horror film yet contains nothing remotely scary or horror-themed. The closest thing we get to genuine horror are the surrealistic dreams Travis suffers each evening, but even these nightmares have a tired, familiar aesthetic about them. And while the movie is certainly depressing in terms of content, there’s nothing overtly frightening here. Especially perplexing is both the title of the film and the occasional allusions to night being especially treacherous but this idea that is never explored or expounded upon. The title itself seems to be an allusion to Travis’ dreams, which some might view as a clever sleight of hand but I personally consider part of a larger, purposely dishonest marketing campaign to attempt to garner a certain type of viewer with false promises.
And again, It Comes at Night isn’t a horrible film. Director Trey Edward Shults clearly possesses an abundance of talent and if you haven’t seen any of the myriad of exceptional post-apocalyptic movies scattered about over the last fifteen years, you might find the experience far more engaging. However, for the rest of us looking for something new or genuinely scary, it is unlikely you’ll find much here.