One of the main criticisms levied against horror films is that they’re often devoid of any sort of characterization, story, or thematic depth. Sure, the main intent is to scare you and if a horror film does so, it technically succeeds, but where’s the fun if there’s no investment? Recently, horror filmmakers, particularly those in the independent sphere, have been focusing more on the characters and story over the actual horror. That’s not to say the horror isn’t there, it’s just a different kind. Instead of monsters and ghosts, they instead focus on the horrors of human nature and our irrational minds. 2016’s The VVitch: A New England Folktale did indeed feature an evil witch living within the woods, but the focus of the film was on the Puritanical family and how the fear of the witch and their religion made them lose their minds and turn on each other. That’s where the real horror comes from: yourself.

In It Comes At Night, an unknown, deadly virus has spread and ravaged the Earth, leaving hardly anybody alive left on the planet. Secluded in a cabin far out in the woods, former schoolteacher Paul (Joel Edgerton) lives with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), as they struggle to survive in the harsh environment. When a drifter named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break into their home looking for resources, Paul reluctantly takes him and his family into their refuge. As time drags on, tensions rise between the two clans.

My favorite horror films aren’t ones that just terrify you and get under your skin, but I love the kind that focuses on the characters and how the horrific situation changes them. Horror is most effective when it’s most relatable and you can imagine yourself in that situation. If your horror isn’t going to be very plot or effect heavy, then you better make sure the characters are interesting. Unfortunately, none of the characters in It Comes At Night worked for me. The performances are very natural, with Joel Edgerton and the rest of the cast excellently capturing the distrust and despair that one must feel in that situation. There are some interesting character aspects on the surface, but there doesn’t feel like a whole lot of growth, or depth to their characters. It’s just watching people be cooped up in a house, always looking over their shoulder and never knowing if they can trust each other, interspersed with surreal dream sequences.

Themes of trust, paranoia, and survival permeate the film, making the thematically interesting, but it felt at the cost of the characters and lack of story. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults does a terrific job at building an atmosphere and putting you on edge, waiting for something to happen. Then you wait, and wait, and wait for really not a whole lot. I don’t mind a good slow burn horror film, but the burn has to eventually lead somewhere. While Shults is great at building tension, he seemed to have difficulty ever paying anything off. Other than the very intense final ten minutes, a lot of the suspense leads nowhere. Not just the suspense, but the story seems jumbled, introducing one scene subplots that have hardly any bearing on the overall narrative. Why set up this scene of Paul being jealous of Will bonding with Travis, if nothing ever really comes of it?

The film is interspersed with many dream sequences, where Travis has vivid nightmares featuring horrific imagery, such as ghastly visits from his deceased grandfather. I’ve often found dream sequences to be lazy, because filmmakers normally use them simply to excite or shock the audience, but without any consequence. A nightmare is scary to you because you don’t know you’re dreaming during it. When you’re watching what it is obviously a dream, therefore not real, there’s not as much tension. These dream sequences are made even more out of place due to Shults using a different aspect ratio for these scenes. It’s an interesting visual trick to indicate the dream world, but it wound up being more distracting, than novel. It’s even worse that it distracted from the gorgeous cinematography. These scenes honestly just feel like Shults shoehorning them in because without them, the film wouldn’t even come close to being called a horror film.

I never really knew what Shults was trying to accomplish with It Comes At Night. Was he trying to make a psychological thriller? A family based character drama? A cerebral horror film? I knew what he was going for thematically, but I never knew anywhere else. All I gleaned from the film was, “Yeah, I suppose I would react that way in that situation.” I appreciate a beautifully shot, character driven film with a bleak atmosphere, but here, it felt pretty much all in service of nothing.


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