A fear of the dark haunts humanity from birth to death. It is a fear of the unknown. A chill down the spine. The shadow in the corner of your eye. It has also proved itself to be an abundant gold mine of invention for storytellers across history.
Trey Edward Shults is only the latest in a lengthy lineage to exploit this fundamental fear in It Comes At Night – a film which feels very much a production too of its star and executive producer Joel Edgerton’s imagination. As ambiguous as it is atmospheric, It Comes At Night taunts with the uncertainty of its own title. Who amongst its audience will not leave wrestling with the question: what comes at night? Naturally it is a film that provides no simple answer and does so unwillingly at that.
Echoing the melancholic dystopia of John Hillcoat’s The Road, It Comes At Night is set in the isolated fringes of a post apocalyptic Earth. Shults, who is behind the screenplay here too, delves into the action in medias res with unapologetic intelligence. Heavy and tormented breathing overlays the opening black screen before revealing its origin to be the sickly lungs of Bud (David Pendleton). Father to Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah, Bud has fallen foul of a bubonic and highly contagious illness. What follows is horrific and haunting in equal measure. It makes for an outstanding prelude. ‘He shouldn’t have seen that’ says Sarah in its wake.
Edgerton plays Sarah’s husband Paul. Along with their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and dog Stanley (surely a nod to Kubrick, whose influence is thorough here), the family live in their boarded up country house on the edge of a forest. So far so classically horror territory – it’s all very La Casa Muda. When Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their not-so idyll looking for fresh water, Paul reluctantly allows him, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and there infant son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to join his family on the basis that they bring food and extra defence to the house against further intruders. Paranoia, however, comes quickly behind this arrangement. ‘You haven’t seen people when they get desperate’ says Paul to Travis, unknowingly hinting at his own rattled condition. He, a history teacher of rosier times, is acutely aware of fall of civilisations (‘Ask me anything about the Roman Empire’) and now finds himself living through one. Likewise, Will used to be in construction and can only watch as the man made world crumbles. Not that this is a world on screen.
Almost stage-like in its set up, It Comes At Night exists in a microcosmic pocket of civilisation. With no communication to any beyond their scarlet red front door, the fate of the rest of humanity is anyone’s guess. Indeed the only clue granted by Shults comes in the form of lingering close ups on Bruegel’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ – a 16th Century panoramic of destruction, death and destitution. Within the film itself, Shults’ direction is strident in ensuring that shots remain claustrophobically contained. Combined with a fabulously etherial and unsettling score from Brian McOmber (all strings and percussion, sharp yet drawn out in modulating rhythm) almost every scene is overwhelmingly atmospheric.
Shults might have honed his craft on the sets of Terrence Malik films but what is breathtakingly clear when watching It Comes at Night, only the second feature from the 29 year old director, is just how much he has learned through cinema and literary fiction itself. There’s very much a tonal overlap here with Robert Eggers’ similarly A24 distributed (they know how to pick ‘em) The Witch of last year whilst Kubrick’s The Shining and work of John Carpenter are both here too. From literature, a fairytale thematic pervades all from the dark forest itself to Will’s Dick Turpin styled intrusion. Intentional or not, the threat represented by the red door at the threat to the house also reminded me of Radcliffe’s black veil in ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ and similar such locked doors of Victorian Gothic fiction. Not knowing what lies beyond is always more terrifying that understanding. The thrill is in the chase and never in the catch.
There is no right and wrong with It Comes At Night. Perhaps one or two too many clichés are deployed in the quest for scares and maybe the finale toes just across the line between ambiguity and tokenism, resulting in something slightly more confusing than intriguing. Those who enter the film for typical horror fare will be the ones left disappointed. Nothing comes at night but fear itself. It is in the darkness of the night that the world seems at its most sinister and deadly. It is the twilight zone that brings out humanity’s deadly instinct to survive.
It Comes At Night is a psychological chamber piece of unfailingly gripping tension and endless openings for analysis. Forays into cinemascope are subtle yet sublimely deployed, a descriptive worthy of the film as a whole. This is cinema worth talking about.