"It Comes at Night" (2017)
(Very minor spoilers for "It Comes at Night" — avoid if you're want to go in totally blind)
Nothing came at night.
The phrase “arthouse horror” usually means you’re in for a sort of vagueness in your 90 minute fear feature. It’s a badge of honor to leave things unsaid and to give audiences the benefit of the doubt; let them fill in the gaps and build a mythology around the characters, creatures and whatever else you’re cooking up on screen.
Think “The Witch,” a film that slavishly commits to its colonial American time period. We learn next to nothing about the titular character, why she’s terrorizing the family in question or, well, much else. It works, too. “The House of the Devil” similarly slowly burns its way through to the finish line and rewards viewers with one Hell of a finale.
“It Comes at Night” doesn’t do this, perhaps because it’s not much of a horror movie at all. The film, set in post-apocalyptic America, gives little information about why the protagonists have taken shelter in a cabin in the woods. There’s an illness and as such avoiding cities seems prudent.
That’s not a problem, though I imagine for some people it will be. Nothing happens in “It Comes at Night;” at least, nothing of substance. There’s no reward for the patience of its audience and no slow burn to a stick of dynamite. Not all horror movies need to follow this formula, of course, but there wasn’t near enough action during the film to justify the lack of punch at the end.
I’ve read a handful of reviews now that laud the film for its lack of “jump scares.” This sentiment, I assume, comes from frustration with mediocre horror movies using tight camera angles and loud musical cues as substitutes for earned scares. As someone who has seen a lot of bad horror films, I understand the feeling but can’t help but think this is misguided.
This presupposes shocking an audience is somehow a lesser form of horror. “The Witch” uses a healthy dose of gore to kick off one of the best reviewed horror movies of the decade, James Wan uses a plenty of “jump scares” in “The Conjuring” (and its sequel) and even “The Exorcist” mixes in a bit of both of these tools to make a solid horror film.
Tension can be a powerful ally in a horror film, and that’s very clearly what “It Comes at Night” seeks to utilize. As the relationship between the two families grows you get the sense things are coming together too easily. Without getting into heavy spoiler territory, the linchpin for the entire film is that the crescendo must match the buildup. It doesn’t.
That has nothing to do with not explaining its mythology or its lack of jump scares, but the film doesn’t deserve credit for either of those qualities either. It’s okay to explain things and there’s nothing wrong with monsters attacking people in a horror movie. I don’t know if people are aware of this, but that’s kind of how the genre got started.