It Comes at Night and the Changing Face of Horror in Cinema

‘I never approached it as a horror movie which is what it’s been marketed as’ director Trey Edward Shults says of his new film in a recent interview with The Independent.

Having only read this interview after seeing It Comes at Night, which was released in the UK yesterday on July 7th, somewhat changed my perception of the film.

The film sees a family of three played by Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr., holed up in a house under quarantine. The film opens with the death of Ejogo’s father from a disease which leaves him rasping for breath and scarred with boils.

After a time, Edgerton’s character allows another couple – played by Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough – along with their young child to stay in their home before an infection within the house causes tensions to flare.

At its heart, It Comes at Night is a post-apocalyptic drama. I’m sure many of you will read the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic’ with an accompanying eye-roll. Some would probably argue that there is little more to do with a post-apocalyptic setting which hasn’t already been perfected by a plethora of great (and even more not so great) pieces of cinema.

This may be so, but Shults’ clarification about the film’s genre can shed some light on why this film is so valuable.

It isn’t a film made to frighten, so much as it is a film which uses fear to confront the psychological disorder of the director himself. The film was written in a three-day stint immediately following the death of Shults’ father from Pancreatic cancer. ‘It’s a movie that comes from death, fear, regret, the heavy stuff’, he tells Jacob Stolworthy.

Perhaps the only pieces of ‘true’ horror which we see in the film come in the form of Travis’ dream sequences. These scenes are beautifully realised nightmares complete with dark hallways, diseased bodies and jarring, dissonant sound design.

Again though, these dreams are not an excuse to make the audience feel afraid of all things that go bump in the night. They are a manifestation of the emotional turmoil of a teenage boy unable to properly process the harsh and unforgiving world he has been forced into. They extend beyond fear of the spreading disease and explore his fear of sex, his mistrust of his father and his sadness at losing his grandfather.

This type of human, psychological approach to horrific subject matter has been attempted successfully before. It Comes at Night, to me, had a very similar feel to John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both films explore the extents to which familial bonds can be stretched when subjugated to a barbaric and bleak world in which anything must be done to survive. It too may be labelled as ‘Horror’, but perhaps wrongly so.

So, while Shults’ second feature length film may not be ‘Horror’, film-makers working within the Horror genre could certainly stand to learn something from It Comes at Night.  Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of a shift away from the decade-long attitude towards horror pioneered by the Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises.

Horror films shouldn’t be a test of machismo, of how much gore or how many jump-scares you can withstand before you start to feel a bit sick. Perhaps with films like It Comes at Night, as well as other recent films such as Get Out and the upcoming A Ghost Story, we are seeing a shift towards a more mature, more measured approach towards Horror in cinema.

What It Comes at Night proves is that the actual actions of human characters themselves can be – and often are – far more affecting, far more frightening than zombies and gore and all the rest. Shults’ film is exemplary in its depiction of psychological upheaval, regardless of its genre.

It Comes at Night is in cinemas now.