A large majority of horror fans would agree that when sitting down to screen a horror film, they are not accustomed to being challenged intellectually. Sure, horror films might have a message that you can theorize about, but you can just as easily turn off your brain and watch the carnage mindlessly. That is not the case with It Comes at Night: it demands your full attention from the start and then intensifies like a white-hot light. Cut from the same cloth as The Babadook and It Follows, It Comes at Night is a film that confronts you with very real anxieties that permeate our modern-day societies. Where its predecessors are concerned with maternal guilt and vulnerabilities involving sexual intercourse (respectively), It Comes at Night asks audiences to confront their anxieties about the unknown, what it means not to know, and how we make a choice to remain ignorant, or attempt to understand what is just beyond our reach.
The film tells the story of Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family (Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and the trials they must endure to survive a world doomed by a mysterious virus. As they try to enjoy what little peace they can muster in their home, they are confronted with a new threat: a new family looking for water. Adhering to the horror genre, Paul and company are immediately suspicious of their new guests, as “you can’t trust anyone but family.” Over time, tensions rise between the families, creating an inescapable rift of terror and paranoia.
If you enter this movie seeking the tropes of the traditional horror genre, you will be disappointed. The writing of the film feels very empty, but that, I will argue, works tremendously well in its favor. You never really get an answer to what “it” is that comes at night. You could venture an infinite number of guesses, but the idea here is you aren’t supposed to know why the characters are so afraid. In true Hitchcock fashion, “it” is nothing more than a MacGuffin, and it is all about the atmospheric ride that Trey Edward Shultz provides. That’s the really interesting part of this film: the title sets your expectations to want some sort of supernatural force to be running amok. The film also teases this mindset with multiple nightmare sequences involving the bizarre “disease” that infects people. You want so badly for your expectations to be met, but they never are. The true horror of this film lies elsewhere.
My strongest theory as to what “it” might be is fear or paranoia itself. Almost every single intense scenario happens at night. Plugging that back into the idea that the film is outlining modern-day anxieties, if our fear of the unknown (uncertainty) only plagues us at night (a time when we can’t give the uncertainty a proper analysis), we either fight (try to confirm the uncertain without all the facts), or flee (remain ignorant to what we are uncertain about). This film is full of poor decisions made from ignorance and misguided information, and each of the characters seem to revel in said decisions. Again, the true horror of this film is not what we do not know, rather, what we might do because we do not know. It is only after difficult decisions are made that the characters begin to devolve into fervor and mania.
Outside of the bold writing choices, the cinematography and set design are what make this film a real treat. Most of the film takes place at night within the interior of the home, utilizing a Steadicam for slow atmospheric contemplation. One scene sees the camera slowly approaching a blood-red door at the end of a long hallway. This establishes two things: the door is a significant point of intensity throughout the film, and it sets the bar high for creative cinematography about ten minutes into the film.
Overall, the film is more concerned with giving a memorable experience than it is with engaging you with a story. The written parameters are piecemeal compared to the multitude of terrifying moments that the film sets up for audiences to experience. While I gave my own theory as to what “it” might be, I encourage everyone to go watch this film so they might expand upon the theory, or develop their own.