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It Comes at Night

Let’s see… A low-budget horror film with a relatively limited release. A whole ton of praise from the arthouse circuit. A smaller cast and an emphasis on atmosphere over gory kills.

Looks like it’s Boutique Horror time!

Tonight’s entry in the subgenre is It Comes at Night, a film that made its premiere at the Overlook Film Festival just outside Portland. So called because it takes place at Timberline Lodge, so famously used for the exterior shots of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s classic, The Shining. But I digress.

The point is that for the sake of independent cinema, my city’s film industry, and my own time and money, I was hoping that I’d enjoy this one. I didn’t. At all.

The premise is your basic post-apocalyptic fare, with a family holed up in a forest cabin while a plague wipes out the rest of humanity. For the safety’s sake, they only go out in groups during the day, never go out at night, keep all the doors and windows boarded up except for one (a red door, in a nice visual touch), greet strangers with the utmost hostility, and so on.

Then of course another family comes along and (long story short) the two clans agree to pool their resources under one roof. Things fall apart from there.

So what exactly is it that comes at night? Fuck if I know! We’re led to believe that a plague is what’s causing all of this, but why would a plague care about whether it’s night or day? Sure, the characters make a big deal of not going out at night, but that’s more like common sense than anything else. And the hostile arrivals at the cabin do typically come at night, but that seems like pure coincidence.

As best I can figure, the title is referring to nightmares. There are a ton of dream sequences all throughout this movie, and they provide the bulk of the film’s scares. This is neatly effective later on, when the denouement is presented in such a haunting and surreal manner that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.

However, until those last few minutes, the dream sequences are so blatantly fake that the scares fall totally flat. Setting up the later use of dreamlike presentation aside, it all comes off as a lame effort to try and create the illusion that something is happening. Because it seriously takes forever for anything to happen. The second family doesn’t even move in until the halfway point, and that pivotal “Who left the door open?” turn doesn’t happen until the start of the fucking third act!

To be fair, it’s not like character deaths happen often or frequently in boutique horror. It’s really more about the characters, the atmosphere, and the greater ideas at play. So long as those are on point, we’re fine. Too bad we’re out of luck here.

Let’s start with the characters. The adult characters are all bland and completely unmemorable. They evoke enough basic human sympathy that I might have felt sorry if any of them died, but none of them were defined enough or outstanding enough that I could really root for or against any of them. I get that the film was trying to sow tension by making it hard to pick sides, but that’s not the same thing as not really caring either way. Joel Edgerton is easily the standout, and that’s only because he’s Joel Edgerton and he’s talented enough to make something (but not much, in this case) out of nothing.

Our de facto protagonist here is actually Travis — the 17-year-old son to Edgerton’s character — played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. The basic premise here had potential: He’s a young man coming of age at a time when he can’t leave his home in the middle of nowhere, and he has no one else to interact with aside from his parents. And given that his grandfather (Bud, played by David Pendleton) dies at the top of the film, he’s amply aware of the fact that his parents could die at any time, leaving him alone. That or Travis himself could die a torturous death at any time.

Alas, Travis himself simply isn’t compelling enough to hold the screen. I don’t know if it’s in how he’s performed or how he’s written, but this character is simply a blank slate. What makes it even worse is that so many of his potential avenues for growth are wrongheaded and don’t lead anywhere.

A key example regards Kim (Riley Keough), the wife of the other family that comes along. He’s seventeen and hasn’t seen a woman aside from his mother in God knows how long, and she’s… well, she’s Riley Keough. She’s also married to their houseguest and the mother to a young boy. The whole angle is so squicky and stupid that I’m at once grateful and frustrated it never went anywhere. Definitely a lose/lose situation.

As for the atmosphere, I found it lamentably overdone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some gorgeous use of shadows and handheld camerawork, but a little of both go a very long way. Even with some outdoor shots in broad daylight, the shadows were so heavy I could only see the characters by silhouette! Sorry, but there comes a point when staring at a mostly-black screen for huge stretches of time stops being scary and starts being incomprehensible. Couple this with an overblown score and it gives the impression of a film that ruins the atmosphere by trying way too hard to create some.

Granted, there are a handful of effective scares at the end, when the movie finally finds its nightmarish groove. And there are a couple of good action beats, even if they’re over far too quickly. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of lazy jump scares.

We come at last to the larger ideas at play. Sadly, there’s not much here. Sure, we have the typical stuff like paranoia, persistence in the face of adversity, humanity’s worthiness to live… all the stuff of your typical zombie fare, but without the actual zombies. Granted, that does leave us with two alpha males butting heads as they each live out the power fantasy of protecting their family on their way to being the Last Man Standing only to ultimately lose everything, but how many times has that already been done on “The Walking Dead”? Aside from the botched “coming-of-age” angle, there’s really nothing here we haven’t seen in umpteen other zombie films.

Ultimately, It Comes At Night comes and goes without much of anything accomplished and without much of any point made. The the characters barely register as such, the atmosphere is too overdone for any effective horror, and little if any effort is made to freshen up the bare-bones premise. The best we’ve got is the concept of a zombie story without zombies, which would be fine if there was anything else worth a damn to fill the void — this ill-defined plague simply isn’t enough to do the job, and anything else that might be marginally interesting doesn’t come along until the closing minutes.

Anyone who likes nihilistic “humans are irredeemable garbage” fare might find something worthwhile here, but I can’t find the heart to recommend this to anyone else.

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