Great horror movies are no longer rare. That sentence almost made my fingers curve backward because this is a luxury many decades did not enjoy. It's certainly short-sighted to say that there were good or bad decades for horror, but there is a notable difference between periods where they struggle to find financing and audience and when they flourish as they should.
It Comes at Night is a dark fucking movie. Its cinematographer, Drew Daniels, should be commended for designing a setting that seamlessly dips into complete darkness without sacrificing tone or visual coherence. Unlike, say, Monsters (2010, Gareth Edwards), whose nearly microscopic budget-to-scale ratio and digital format forced a soupy visual style, It Comes at Night uses darkness as a powerful visual reproduction of the psychological journey its characters move through and gains immensely and loses nothing to the blackened color pallet.
The trauma of the film is so adeptly tracked by the visual design, both in camera-work and production, it could almost be a silent film. At least, a quiet film--save the foley. The film moves through the mind of a grieving boy as he experiences the increasing paranoia of his family as they attempt to make a life away from an civilization apparently ravaged by a horrifying disease. The story is adorned with odd, unexplained idiosyncrasies. How long did they wait to kill Bud? Who were the guys in the woods? Does Will even have a brother?
This creates a static of reliability, and achieves seamlessly a challenging narrative device for film: it takes an objective but unreliable narrator. What the viewer sees and hears one moment is subtly reversed in the next moment. The disarray this creates in the mind of the audience is how the plot is fused to the tension propelling the story. Much to the film's credit, it never needs to provide anything but atmosphere to create anxiety. There are what might be misidentified as "jump scares." A cynic, or simply experienced horror fan, will note to them self that they see the scare coming and mark it as cheap, but the film tracks these scares knowingly and without pretense of genre formality. The scares are earned, in no way trite, and utilize high/low extremes in a thoughtful way. Much like, say, the climax of Don't Look Now--a fantastic paranoia movie this movie owes a debt of history if not direct inspiration--which features what we might now call a jump scare, but what is actually the consequence of the plot; a sensible twist that one would never expect. It Comes at Night is littered with miniature scares similar to that big one.
Such is our lot in the contemporary nightmare climate. It's not simply that great films are being made in this oft-derided genre; it's that they're so sharp, pointed, and deliver their points with intense accuracy. Genre has become codified perfectly, and the code of horror is subversion. Such is the importance of the abstract in times of serious tragedy: the only way to honestly portray a pre-apocalyptic society is honestly. A form entirely made of imaginary lies only has so many avenues of honesty, and replication is certainly viable. It Comes at Night may not be a classic per Get Out, It Follows, The Witch, or any of the other mind-boggling, acute artifacts we've been so lucky to be subjected to in the past few years, but it would be unfair not to point out that even five years ago this would be thee standout of the year. It's to the film's credit that it can stand against those perfect films and accurately identified as great.
2017, Trey Edward Schults. Opens Friday, June 9th.