It’s not just all in your head if it’s contagious

It Comes At Night made me realize that some horror movies have too many ingredients. This one here contains: a family of three in a boarded-up, but otherwise intact, creaky house in the woods, banks of fog, sleeplessness and nightmares. That’s it. There are no aliens, knife-wielding loonies, supernatural catastrophes, magical-realist occurrences, ominous messages from beyond, or ghosts of any kind. There is no longer any electricity, and there is also no nonsense about someone sabotaging the generator in the middle of the night because there isn’t one. Paul and Sarah and their teenage son Travis have to make do with camping lanterns. That sounds slightly arthouse-y and intellectual for a horror flick, but it’s way better than any other genre exercise I’ve come across lately, with the exception of A Quiet Place.

There might be something in the woods. The audience never gets to see it, altough there are a few over-the-shoulder shots into the trees when one of the characters is trying to find their family dog Stanley who has strayed too far from the house. You can press pause all you want, you won’t see the thing that is threatening those people. There is only a clever reverse shot of the actors themselves: they look terrified with what they are seeing, or with what they think they are seeing. Maybe they just feel a heightened fear. And that seems to be the point of every horror flick ever made: it wants you to feel afraid. The It of the title has no physical form or presence except the fear in the heads of the protagonists while they try keeping their wits about them. That fear is crucial; It Comes At Night has realized this, and if applied correctly, it’s more than enough for the movie’s 87 minutes. At one point, Travis draws a picture of what he has seen in the woods, and it looks like two Babadook-like critters are hiding in the trees. But even there: has he seen them, or are they just an expression of his fear?

Ok, I haven’t been entirely honest with you: the movie also features a contagious disease of some kind, which is why our family members have to wear gas masks and rubber gloves, at least at night. But what exactly is the connection between the disease and the outside threat? The movie doesn’t let on. There is no TV or satellite comm link to tell us that the world has been taken over by zombies; there is no backstory, no patient zero, nada. The movie starts with grandpa Bud already covered in blisters and sores, dribbling dark blood into his lap and being barely responsive. He dies, and the gas-masked family carries him outside in a wheelbarrow during daylight, throws him in a shallow grave, douses him with gasoline and lights him up. Travis can’t sleep, because if he does, he has nightmares about Bud being still alive, but sick. Is that a warning? A threat?

And then something goes bump in the night, beyond that red door that must not be opened during nighttime. Outside, there is a man called Will, who says that his wife and young son are in danger and starving, and that they have to go and get them. Should Paul and Sarah and Travis take in Will and Kim and their kid? Can they trust them? What to do? Paul ties Will to a tree outside overnight, and he survives that cruelest of quarantines, so apparently he is not contagious. Later, there is a scene where Paul breaks out the booze, hands Will a glass and then questions him, trying to catch him in a lie. Think about it: if Will tells the apparent truth, he might still harm Paul and his family. If he is lying or even being imprecise, it might be because he simply has to secure his own family’s safety at all costs. That interrogation leads to absolutely nothing other than inciting or calming Paul’s own fears.

The fact that you have to make certain connections yourself leads you to assume the worst case, and what scares you the most, no movie can know, but this movie here tries its best to trigger exactly that. It seems to know that what we cannot see is almost always more frightening than what we can see. What does it mean if Travis has nightmares about Will looking at him with dead eyes, or if Kim is kissing him and then drooling dark blood all over him? Is that an omen? Should he tell Paul, and should Paul act on Travis’ nightmare? In huis clos situations like this, the plot moves forward like a game of chess: you make a move, and once you’ve made it, you cannot take it back. If you make a bad choice, then the fear heightens. If you think about the movie this way, it has more in common with Stalker than with movies like A Quiet Place or It Follows.

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