Horror films are flickering dances of light and shadow, a roaring fire at which we are all too eager to sit. That makes horror filmmakers our campfire storytellers, guiding their flashlights under their faces to cast their ghoulish caricatures. A good horror director knows how to lower their voices to build suspense and raise them again to make us make us jump and scream. Sometimes they are carnival barkers. Sometimes they are shamans. But always they are supposed to keep their audience engaged, terrified, and surprised.
So it is with grim consternation that I report that It Comes at Night is a horror story told in drab monotone. The film’s perfunctory dramatization makes Trey Edward Shults’s apocalyptic family tragedy read more like bullet points than a fluid narrative, and the capable cast can only do so much to disguise the thin, predictable, paranoid survival thriller they’re trapped playing out.
Never mind how, never mind why, and don’t ask too many questions: a deadly virus has swept the land, and a small, well-prepared family has found refuge at their house in the woods. Paul (Joel Edgerton), the patriarch, keeps the order and defends the homestead and does what has to be done. Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) helps make one key decision, but mostly stays out of the movie’s way. Their son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is having nightmares about his recently deceased grandfather, which may be a portent of things to come.
Come to think of it, there are a lot of portents of things to come in It Comes at Night. Travis casts his gaze over evocative biblical imagery, implying a greater tale at work. Travis draws pictures of monsters in the woods, foreshadowing a sinister threat. Their dog barks at the wilderness, and disappears for a stretch, giving the distinct impression that there might something to bark at, and that maybe it was relevant in some way.
But It Comes at Night teases you with omens, and it only keeps teasing. The film seems to be operating under the false assumption that if it looks like this story could eventually go in an unexpected direction, it doesn’t actually have to. The family encounters another group of survivors and forms an alliance, and that decision goes about as well as anyone would expect it to in an apocalyptic movie about a killer virus. The camera may glide and the music may be moody, but only in service of a predictable sequence of events, with predictable outcomes and predictable interpretations.
The loss of innocence? Check. The best laid plans of mice and men? Check. Man’s inhumanity to man? Triple-check. Old themes are presented matter-of-factly, as though they had never been considered before, by other filmmakers, in more challenging films. Trey Edward Shults guides us confidently towards his film’s conclusion but that doesn’t make the destination inherently interesting, especially since the trail took us through neighborhoods we’ve visited many times before, with more insightful tour guides.
So a story was told. That doesn’t mean was told well. And a point was made, but that doesn’t mean it was profound. It Comes at Night is a straight line of a movie, a steady rhythm that could potentially sweep you up into a state of somnambulism. But sleepwalkers eventually wake up, and sometimes their dreams are just dreams, and not worth remembering.
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Top Photo: A24
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.