Halloween 2017: It Comes at Night

This film was absolutely not what I was expecting. I tend to ignore book and film reviews before I consume media so it’s not uncommon that I find myself surprised when I finally watch the movie or read the book. But even with that in mind, this film was still surprising to me. When I see a title like “It Comes at Night” I have some expectations. Like a monster or killer or band of roving post-apocalyptic warriors literally coming at night, attacking the protagonists, creating the violent tension that makes horror films worth watching.

I felt let down by this film, and though that opinion has changed a bit, I still think this film has a core of dishonesty that ensures that the viewer can never know for sure what caused the events to unfold as they did. Which is fine in a way – nothing in the rule book says horror films have to be easy to parse out. My adoration of It Follows should show that I don’t mind doing the work necessary to figure out what is going on with a film.  Sometimes half the fun comes from piecing together the details and clues so that we understand the filmmaker’s intent.  That fun fades when a film that has only six characters and takes place mostly inside a single home muddies the plot line with so many dream sequences and Macguffins that the viewer will never be able to understand exactly what happened.

And I must say that even though I find this film to be dishonest, it still comes no where close to being as dishonest as the most dishonest horror film of all time, High Tension. I genuinely do not know how anyone could praise that film after viewing the last ten minutes. The ending shows that the entirety of the action up to that point could not have happened as presented, that literally the entire movie’s sequence of action could not possibly have occurred as the blonde heroine presents the action and experiences it, and therefore the film deliberately misrepresented everything that happened in order to achieve a GOTCHA ending. But the film likely still gets views because the action up until the directors shot us the middle finger was excellent and the lead actress was very effective in the role.  While the actors in It Comes at Night do a fine job, the film is very static, with very few thrills.  I guess if a film is going to dishonest, it needs to go big or go home..

Above the cut, I want to tell you that the actors did a fine job with the material in It Comes at Night, that the bulk of the film works on a very basic level, and that there are worse ways you can spend an hour and a half of your time. I’m telling you this above the cut because below the cut I will be utterly spoiling the film. If you want to take my reaction and run with it, now is the time to stop reading. For those who have seen the film and want to discuss it with me or those who don’t care about spoilers, let’s dissect this little film.

The film begins with Sarah, wearing an oxygen mask that muffles her speech, crying as she says goodbye to her dying father, who has been in quarantine.  The old man has a disease that has darkened the sclerae in his eyes, covered him with plague-like buboes, and he is panting.  Sarah’s husband John and her teen son Travis load her father up into a wheelbarrow and take him into the woods that surround their isolated home.  John commits a mercy killing, shooting the old man and then burning his remains.

Later in the house we can see that the world is vastly different.  There is no electricity and the house is very primitive and raw-boned in its furnishings.  This is a bunker for the end of the world, with windows and entrances boarded over.  This house is the logical end of all the prepper culture adherents waiting for the end of the world.  Travis goes to bed and tells his grandfather’s dog, Stanley, that he will take care of him.

Here we get the first of many plot elements that will muddy the waters and in a better director’s hands could have led us to a conclusion at the end as to what it is that really happens with Travis and what doesn’t: Travis’ action is often shown to be a dream when he suddenly wakes up.  Sometimes he wakes from a dream within a dream.  This first time his dream is shown as action in the film he finds his grandfather back in the house, sick and bleeding and screaming.  Travis wakes up from this nightmare and hears someone in the house.

The house is boarded up and there is one entrance into the home.  You walk into the side entrance into a sort of mud room that in turn leads through another door into the main hallway.  Both doors are kept locked at all times and John has the sole set of keys to the doors, and when he must leave Sarah has the keys.  Beyond the hallway door, someone is trying to get into the house.  John, in addition to a number of oxygen masks, has quite an arsenal of weapons and he manages to subdue the intruder in a manner that makes you wonder if he was once a cop – he has a limp that is never explained that makes the viewer consider his profession before the end of the world.

John does not kill the intruder but instead drags him outside and carefully secures him to a tree, taping a sock around his mouth so he cannot make too much noise and leaves him there.  My first thought was that John was leaving the intruder for the thing that comes during the night but later it becomes clear that John has set up a sort of quarantine test and Will, showing no signs of the sickness, has passed.  John confronts Will, who reveals he has a wife and a child on the other side of the woods and that he had only entered John’s home because he thought it was abandoned.  He claims he is living in his brother’s cabin and only wants to save his family.  John reveals this information to his wife and Sarah tells him that the family must come life with them because if they let Will go, he already knows where they live.  Will says he has goats and chickens he can trade for water – John has a water purification system that makes the well water near his home safe to drink.

John decides to offer shelter to Will and his family but is still taking no chances.  As he drives back into the the woods with Will, two men shoot out a tire on his truck and Will and John kill them.  Actually, Will wanted not to kill the man he subdues – John kills the man after Will has beaten him up – because he wanted to pump them for information.  This sends off alarm bells for John but the two proceed onward and return with Will’s family – his wife, Kim, and son, Andrew.

Kim and Will are young adults, Andrew is not much older then five.  Travis takes a keen interest in Kim, and one begins to wonder if what comes at night may be lust as Travis is confronted with an attractive woman already paired with another man.  He’s seventeen and we don’t know how long Travis has been in this house out in the middle of nowhere.  We begin to feel even creepier when Travis goes into a crawlspace and listens to the family talking, Kim and Will cavorting in the bed, laughing.  Travis does seem to be only listening, not watching, and smiles at their jokes, and our tension lifts.

It returns later when Travis, a chronic insomniac, rises in the night to find Kim, who is also having trouble sleeping, alone in the kitchen, dreaming of the food she used to enjoy.  The two have a tense conversation – tense only because they don’t know each other well and seem to have little in common – and Travis leaves her alone with her thoughts.  After that scene in the kitchen, Travis begins to bond with Andrew, finding him toys and crayons.  John also begins to trust Will and shares some of his scotch with Will one evening.

In this conversation we learn that John, the gun expert and all-around survivor, was a history teacher.  No idea why he limps.  Will reveals he was an only child, causing John to question him about whose house it was he was staying in.  Will says that his brother-in-law felt like a real brother to him, hence not initially saying the man was Kim’s brother.  This ends the goodwill between them as John’s suspicions arise.

The arrangement works for a while.  Will teaches Travis how to chop wood, the families work together well, and you begin to think again that what comes at night will find a prosperous, happy arrangement to terrify or kill.  Then one evening  Stanley hears something in the distance and begins to bark and growl.  He runs off into the night and does not come back and Travis attempts to run after the dog.  Will and John catch up and convince Travis to go home, that Stanley will come back.

We have a couple more episodes of Travis dreaming about becoming ill, with blood pouring from his mouth and then one night he finds Andrew asleep in his grandfather’s room, the room he occupied when he became sick.  No one knows how Andrew got there – it is presumed he sleepwalks – and Travis gently wakes the little boy, takes him by his arm, and returns him to the room he shares with his parents. Then Stanley comes back.  In his nightly insomniac tour of the house, Travis notices that the door that leads into the mudroom is unlocked and gets his father.  Inside the room is Stanley, dying from the disease that kills people – evidently the disease can affect dogs, too.  John banishes Travis and he and Will burn the dog’s remains.

That night there is a tense evening meal as Travis explains he found the entrances into the house unlocked and that he had found Andrew sleeping in his grandfather’s room.  John realizes that Andrew could very well have picked up the disease from the old man’s possessions, and recommends that the two families split up into self-imposed quarantines.  Travis stays in his parents’ room, has another dream of the disease, then awakens.  He leaves the room and can hear Andrew and Kim crying.  He alerts his father, who then wakes Sarah and in oxygen masks and well-armed, the two go to check on Kim and Will.

Andrew is indeed sick with the disease.  Will just wants to leave, and has a gun he had not revealed he owned and takes control of John before John knows Will is armed.  Will is unaware Sarah is nearby and forces John to remove the oxygen mask because he insists no one is sick, even as he demands his son keep his eyes closed.  He insists that his family just wants to leave and they only want to leave with what they came with and as he marches John out of the room, Sarah tries to intervene.  Will persuades her to lower her gun as he lowers his own, and when the gun is lowered John attempts to take control of the situation.  The action spills outside the house where Will gets the better of John and Sarah shoots him.  Kim attempts to run into the woods with Andrew, and John manages to shoot Andrew as she is running.  In the most affecting and horrible scene in this film, Kim begins to sob in anguish and misery and begs John to kill her, too.  He obliges.

The next scene we are shown Travis dying from the illness.  Then we see John and Sarah sitting at the table, sclerae in their eyes dark, visibly sick, waiting for the end.

I’m telling you every little thing that happened in this film so we can perhaps together determine how the hell it all happened. I suspect the point of this film is that “it” is death and it can come any time it wants to, night or day.  But how did “it” really gain access to the house?

–It clearly was lurking in the grandfather’s bedroom, so if John was willing to burn a fresh corpse to avoid the illness spreading, why on earth didn’t he burn everything his father-in-law touched?

–If the dog Stanley could get the illness and spread it, how did this not happen earlier on?

–Who unlocked the sole entrance and the entrance into the mud room the night Andrew ended up in the grandfather’s room?  Only John had the keys.  There was no way those doors could have been opened without getting the keys from John.

–Why did they portray Travis as a creepy, possibly sex-obsessed teen when he clearly was not?  Were they trying to convey that somehow Travis, who may have engaged in lucid dreaming that caused him to move around the house and not remember it, was going to be the catalyst for “it” coming?

–If Stanley could carry the disease and die from it, how did the dog escape this fate when the grandfather sickened?  How did the dog make it back inside the house the night he died?

–Will likely forced John to take off the oxygen mask because exposing John to Andrew meant that John could catch the disease and would be less likely to shoot Will and his family to prevent them from leaving.  If John was already exposed, the cat would be out of the bag and no need to try to limit the damage.  And John knew this.  So why did he kill the family once he already knew he was exposed.  He was slow to anger, very methodical in his thinking and the way the film ended makes no sense in regard to his character.

–Once John saw Andrew was sick, he knew it was all over anyway.  Travis had told him that he touched Andrew’s arm when he took him back to bed and less than 24 hours later the boy was dying.  Travis had already been exposed, which meant Sarah and John were as well. From the moment he saw Andrew was sick, John knew it was all over, that Travis would die and that he and Sarah had been infected.  So why the bloodbath in the clearing outside the house.  John had no altruistic aims to prevent the spread of the disease.  His sole focus was on his family.  The shootout made no sense.

–Nothing came at night except Stanley and Andrew but they were not the agents of death in this film – John and the disease were.  No one else killed anyone except John and the unknown illness.

This was an interesting though terribly flawed psychological film that was mismarketed as a horror film and I wonder how differently disposed I might have been toward it had it been presented to me accurately.  But I don’t really think that would have changed over much how I feel about this film.  This is clearly meant to be a psychological thriller but the director shut down every potential avenue of tension – teen boy coming of sexual age in an isolated place, potential race issues during the end of the world, potential betrayal and trust issues, apocalyptic us against them themes – and left us with nothing but questions as to how “it” came to get them and the potential answers require us to disregard the facts the movie showed us.

Did you see this film?  What did you think of it?  I am being hypercritical?  Did you know the actress who played Kim is Elvis’s granddaughter?  Did Kim’s heartbreaking screams affect you like they did me?  Share!

4 thoughts on “Halloween 2017: It Comes at Night

  1. I agree that it’s not a traditional horror film as the marketing suggests (though it is a kind of horror film). I took it as a kind of Sartrean parable about the fragility of human connectedness in a state of unremediable crisis (“it” being not merely death, but the socially-bound fear that attends our awareness of death). As for so much that remains mysterious or unresolved, I was more disposed to assign a “watch it again” asterisk, What you and other viewers found frustrating and dissatisfying, I found frustrating and intriguing. My initial read was that the concealment of detail was meant to convey the human predicament before uncontrollable forces, including “other people.” I do think the contagion was most likely spread through the boy’s interaction with the infected dog, which would indicate that zoontic (sp?) passage would be a new development. But even that’s not certain. But again the enveloping uncertainty struck me as a feature rather than a bug.

    I may have more to say after I watch the film again.

  2. I went in expecting some kind of monster or zombie movie, I wasn’t really disappointed that it wasn’t that, I didn’t enjoy the film. It’s definitely one that warrants a re-watch at some point. I saw this in the theater and I think a lot of the audience disliked this film. I got that with The VVitch and mother! too.

    I agree that Kim’s screaming when her family dies were the most affecting part. I don’t agree Travis came across creepy or sex-obsessed. Frustrated and hormonal, yes, but nothing about him struck me as creepy.

    I interpreted the “it” that comes at night to be fear or paranoia, not really the disease. As in those emotions are strongest at the time. Or perhaps it’s a direct reference to how the seed of the disintegration of the two families came during the night.

    The disease seemed to spread through direct contact, so not touching skin or bodily fluids meant they could keep the grandfather until he suffered too much to let him live anymore and they could either burn or scrub it out of what he touched.

    While I wouldn’t call this film “great,” I think it was a pretty solid horror/thriller. I’m also glad the dishonest marketing didn’t keep it from being somewhat successful, unlike mother! (which wasn’t really dishonest for that film, just vague).

  3. Addendum: I meant I DID enjoy the film. Fuck me, typos.

    Also as far as the reason John acted the way he did, I think he was in denial much like how Will was. They were both under the delusion they could salvage things. No matter how much John was able to keep his head on, the vague chance that they his family wasn’t infected made him act irrationally.

    I think that’s one of the main themes of the film. Attempting to press on in the most dire situations, even when it makes no sense to.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with your review. I definitely felt lied to by the trailers and by the first half of the film. I certainly don’t mind when books or movies ask the viewer to fill in the blanks but this whole movie felt like a cheat. And an insult. I don’t even mind when horror movies don’t really work like horror movies — we recently watched “A Field in England” which was listed as horror and I found it more of a weird arty drama — and yet I enjoyed it a great deal. Same with movies like “Darling” or “I am the pretty thing.”

    We saw it in the theater and I felt like getting my money back.

    Also agree about High Tension — if the last 10 minutes (or the “plot twist”) at the end makes the entirely of the film feel like a lie then that is not an effective movie. Those twist endings should surprise and shock but make you feel like, “I should have guessed it all along! Now I will rewatch and look for all the clues!” The oft-maligned M. Night Shyamalen — at his best — is good at this.

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