It Comes At Night (2017) by Trey Edward Shults
Review by Andrew Swafford
The distribution company A24 is exceptionally skilled in marketing downright unmarketable movies; Under the Skin, Enemy, and Spring Breakers are some of my favorite modern films, but they’re a little too obtuse to be pitched in a way that will satisfy their eventual viewers. I’ve even found Moonlight to be terribly hard to describe without making it sound like a weepy (it isn’t). A24’s recent attempt to pitch The Witch as a straight horror picture backfired pretty disastrously, leaving most multiplexgoers either fuming or laughing. At their most successful, A24 tends to avoid describing the plots for their more unconventional movies, resisting an audience’s instinct to place them in a neat genre category or predict how the narrative will play out (this is especially effective in a time when movie trailers increasingly spoil their movie’s ending). Instead, the company tends to make their trailers and posters abstract and visually evocative, drawing viewers in without knowing exactly where they’re being led.
It Comes at Night is maybe the purest example of this.
Read the title. What does it suggest? The threat of something shadowy, dangerous, and inhuman, surely--it’s probably a horror movie? But the indefinite pronoun is designed to leave you wanting more information. “It” could be a zombie, a monster, an alien, a demon, or any number of alternatives.
Look at the poster. What do you see? A dog, looking out into flat darkness. No silhouettes of trees or footprints or anything of the sort. That vague title hangs, tiny as a vision screening chart, above, with the already vague indefinite pronoun testing your eyesight most of all. Not only does this title not want you to know what “it” is, but it seems the poster hardly wants you to think there is one.
Watch the trailer. What happens? A man in a gasmask asks a man who is tied to a tree if he has “any idea what’s going on out there.” Where? The follow-up question is not asked. The man shakes his head. A family is living deep in an unidentified wilderness, presumably in post-apocalypse survival-mode, and the patriarch explains that they always travel in groups for safety, always keep their red door locked (mysteriously specific), and, “most importantly,” never go out at night. What are they afraid of? This is not explained, though there are vague references to “sickness” later, as well as a conversation about that red door being opened unexpectedly. A title card reads “FEAR TURNS MEN INTO MONSTERS,” suggesting that maybe there’s nothing supernatural happening here after all? Much is unclear, by design.
All of this is to explain that the now-prestigious A24 is banking on you seeing this movie on the strength of its mystery. “It” is bound to be scary if the creators don’t even want to speak it’s name, they want us to think. Whatever is in the darkness is bound to be interesting if the creators don’t even show a hint of it, they want us to think. Whatever opened that red door is bound to be menacing if we’re never given a glimpse of it, they want us to think. This is all very mysterious, they want us to think.
This is not all very mysterious. This is not, in fact, anything. It is the absence of mystery. It is the suggestion that there might be something to suggest. I am not afraid of an indefinite pronoun or negative space on a poster.
Despite being unconvinced by this smoke-and-mirrors marketing strategy, I went to see It Comes it Night on the strength of the established A24 brand (The Witch was my favorite movie of last year, as podcast listeners will know), as well as a loyalist to arty horror in all its forms. And I am here to tell you, reader, that not only is It Comes at Night not a horror movie, it is hardly a movie. It is a non-movie. It is three dogs on each other’s shoulders in a trenchcoat instead of a movie.
The film opens with an elderly man dying of a horrible disease that has covered him with welts and sores. We see the elderly man dragged out into the woods by two younger adults who kill and bury him, presumably to put him out of his misery. The film ends with the implication that the same thing is going to happen to his grandson. Nothing of substance happens between those two events, except for a lot of empty suspense and paranoia and dream sequences and hinted backstories that are never developed enough for me to even outline here.
Yes, there is a...plot...of sorts, here, about a second family who is taken in and offered shelter only to maybe threaten the first family’s health due to some things that might have happened at night when that damn red door might have been opened by someone, but I don’t think this qualifies as something of substance happening because there is no definite solid ground to stand on in outlining the narrative. Some things might have happened! But they also might have not...ooooooooh…
There is a lot of quiet and darkness, though, which perhaps inspires some cinemagoers to scratch their chins and say, “ah yes, art!” but it all suggests no ideas and evokes no emotion, aside from an obvious empty warning to “be afraid…” Of what? Who can say. (Really the only interpretation that you could viably take from this thing is a pseudo-Trumpian call to trust no one, be afraid of everything, and build a wall. But I think even that would be giving the film too much credit for advancing a point of view, which...again…)
I understand the film school aversion to Blumhouse-style filmmaking and marketing, where every impossibly-horrific thing in the universe is jumping out of nowhere so often that the all the demons of hell lose their power to inspire fear or curiosity. Who needs that? Set it on fire. But when all that nonsense is gone, you have to replace it with something. Your movie needs to have something in it.