They’re selling a horror movie but don’t have one
The trailers for It Comes at Night are selling a horror movie the finished product never delivers. To be fair, it’s likely that neither writer/director Trey Edward Shults or star/godfather Joel Edgerton intended to make a conventional horror film. The fact remains that’s what they’re selling, and what. they don’t have.
It Comes at Night opens with a family, wearing gas masks and rubber gloves, saying goodbye to an obviously sick old man, covered with sores and barely able to speak. Any regular fan of The Walking Dead knows what’s coming next. They then take him outside in a wheelbarrow where Joel Edgerton put a pillow over his face and then shoots him in the head.
We soon learn that an epidemic as led to the wide-scale breakdown of civilization, and that Paul, played by Joel Edgerton, has taken his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) to a remote house near a forest. They observe an ironclad rule that no one goes out after dark, and there’s an insinuation that some mysterious danger is lurking outside.
Something goes bump in the night, but…
Early on the family is awakened by noises.
“Someone’s in the house!” Sarah says, getting Paul and Travis out of bed and armed.
Your heart will be in your throat at this point, but this is as good as it gets, so don’t get used to it. The intruder is just as scared of them as they are of him. Will (Christopher Abbott) claims to be just scavenging food and water for his own family, and just thought the house, which to be fair, is boarded up, was empty.
Does no one in this movie watch The Walking Dead?
Of course he was – does no one in this movie watch The Walking Dead? Paul, though, leaves Will tied half-naked to a tree for what seems like at least a day or two. We don’t have a lot of information to justify this kind of ruthlessness at this point and the audience could be forgiven for wondering what kind of a psycho we’ve gotten ourselves hooked up with. The Walking Dead didn’t have Rick Grimes do something like this until we’d gotten to know both the character and the desperate world he lives in.
We see little of the desperate world, though – in fact so little that we have to take it on faith that there’s no help out there – the police, National Guard and firefighters aren’t coming. But without that element, this is just a haircut on Deliverance. Without zombies, it’s also oddly un-entertaining. A sense of impending disaster hangs over the entire movie almost from the opening credits – and when Paul and Sarah decide to invite Will and his family to move in with them, assuming there’s strength in numbers, we know nothing good can come of it.
Short movie juggles more balls than it has time for
But this short movie (the running time is only an hour and thirty-one minutes) juggles more balls than it has time for and doesn’t really fully develop any of them. The alpha dog conflict which would seem nearly inevitable between Paul and Will never really comes to fruition. Then there’s the problematical power structure in the new commune. There’s little pretense of democracy here, as much as Paul tries to play good guy. It’s very much a case of “If you live under my roof, you follow my rules,” and that has to lead to tension and conflict eventually. It does, though again, that alone could have supported a movie by itself.
Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough) is young and attractive and it doesn’t take long for us to realize that she is arousing to young Travis, whose dating opportunities are necessarily limited. That, however, is only one of the red herring in this well-intentioned independent effort. What could have been a juicy subplot never really goes anywhere. The plot is replete with false leads that never seem to go anywhere. Most irritating is the movie’s recurrent device of popping a frightening image up in front of the camera with a loud sound effect only to have it turn out to be one of Travis’s nightmares. That is the cinematic equivalent of throwing a cat at the audience. They used to do that all the time and 70’s horror movies, and it was usually a signal that the real killer/monster/menace was right around the corner.
Although It Comes at Night is titled like a horror movie, and is being marketed as a horror movie, it emphatically is not a horror movie. And that’s going to cost them. As well acted as it is, horror movie fans are going to be bored and frustrated by the movie Shults has actually made, and audiences who might have appreciated the movie’s bleak, claustrophobic meditation on the inevitability of human failings may stay away, thinking this is a zombie movie.
A zombie or two might have helped
And frankly, a zombie or two might have helped. It bears noting that there’s little here that hasn’t been dealt with on The Walking Dead. Writer/director Shults seems to feel he’s discovered this on his own, but he’s treading on post-apocalyptic territory that’s old news in horror and science fiction. Cable TV audiences already know that once society crumbles, people cannot be trusted not to behave badly. Yes, he’s presented a streamlined drama that deals with the themes without the special effects, and the attempt is laudable but in the end he’s made a horror movie without the good stuff.
And we never do get an answer to the question posed by the title: what does come at night, anyway?