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It Comes At Night (2017)

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Trey Edward Shults directs, in what was a highly anticipated psychological cabin fever horror film, It Comes at Night.  Despite quite positive critical reaction, the film has struggled to get that same response from the paying public.  The film opens in a secluded wooden house deep in the middle of a thick forest.  The house is occupied by a small family who appear to know about as much about what is going on outside of that wood as we do: there is a virus that has killed a lot of people, there is only one blood red door in and out of the house, and only one key for it.  They’re suddenly faced with the arrival of an outsider, and contrasting choices: cautiousness, compassion, and ultimately, survival.  Not knowing the whole picture is extremely unnerving, but it’s also not necessary seeing as the film is really about humans.  Why muddle that with the numbers of those that have died, or the genetic makeup of a virus when it can focus in on a few people instead and how they deal with it?  That queasy, unsettling vibe is constant throughout the refreshingly sharp 90 minute run time.
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Much of the film is told from the perspective of the son Travis (Girls’ Kelvin Harrison Jr.), but there are various dream sequences of his that can throw you off the scent.  There’s a switch in aspect ratio for each of the dream sequences, but I’ll admit I didn't actually spot it at the time.  Even if you did, I get the impression Shults played with this rule later on as it becomes less clear what is real and the perspective we’re provided with becomes more compromised.  There are wonderful performances all round.  I’ve been a huge Joel Edgerton fan since 2010's Animal Kingdom and 2011's Warrior in particular.  I still think the latter is better than 2010's The Fighter (a film that won all of the awards, and was released around the same time with a not too dissimilar plot), and then he went and made The Gift in 2015 for his directorial debut – a brilliant horror film with Jason Bateman somehow managing to convincingly play a complete git.  He’s at his mumbling, fidgeting best, while also remaining an intense focus on doing anything for his family.  They’re the questions the film asks it’s audience too.  How far would you go?  When we’re stripped of everything, if the world is (apparently) facing the end, then where does that leave us as human beings?  The characters in It Comes At Night are simultaneously desperate for the most basic of human desires such as companionship, but also fearful of everything and everyone.  They long for emotional bonds and interactions, but need to remain cold and clinical if they’re to stay alive.  Where does your line sit, and how far would you go?  These are the questions the film leaves rattling round your mind.
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Charlotte is a sucker for an open ended conclusion to a film, and she certainly got that with It Comes at Night.  The film has so many unanswered questions that could leave some disappointed.  If the film does it job properly and works for you then these will only add to the uneasiness – it did for me.  It never bogs down the plot in the setup with lots of exposition.  We're playing catch up from the very start: What’s this house?  How did this family get here?  What’s this illness they’re afraid of? What has happened to everyone else?  Not being spoon fed details like we're idiots was a welcome change for me, but that may bother those that need everything tied up in a bow.  The film’s title alone could be about a whole host of different things.   Unfortunately that’s only the beginning of the issues with the marketing for the film.  It’s title, coupled with a brilliant, if massively misleading teaser and subsequent trailers have sold audiences a sort of film that It Comes At Night is not. Everything hinted at a The Village-esc monster movie, about a fear of something in the woods to be afraid of.  While you could argue that is still the case in one sense, this is not a straight forward horror with dark corners, slamming doors and jump scares.  Audiences have been brainwashed by lots of horror films with that DNA makeup (some good, some bad) in to expecting much of the same when they pay to watch a ‘horror’ film.  Expectations following those great trailers were raised again with the positive critical reception to the film (warranted in my opinion), so when they have sat through a slow paced, brooding 90 mins of cabin fever with no actual monsters in the woods, AND an ambiguous ending, then many have felt a bit cheated of a big pay off.  The same happened with The Witch (2015) and The Babadook (2014), but these are the horror films I prefer, and these are new wave of films that appear to be getting made at the moment as explored brilliantly in this excellent Guardian article.  Maybe its because I jump EVERY SINGLE TIME and I’m sick of feeling stupid, but I’m so tired of lazy jump scares. What’s scary about that?  It’s a shock that lasts a second, with a few seconds of tension as it builds up to the unsurprising slam of a door.  You know it’s coming, they know its coming, everyone else in the cinema does, and we’ve seen it so many times before.  Films like The Witch and The Shining (1980) stay with you and properly unnerve you as that thread of dread is woven throughout the entire narrative.  What’s scarier, a loud bang with a haunted doll flying across the room, or mulling over the prospect of having to kill a person if it meant saving you and your family?
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It’s a shame It Comes at Night has been forced to face a backlash created by it’s poor marketing.  It would be interesting to know how much Shults knew about how the film was going to be sold as I can’t imagine this is how he would have gone about doing it.  Having seen the film itself, looking back at that original teaser as the camera slowly creeps towards the red door at the end of a long corridor, I can’t help but think of the Cinefix movie trailer mixes.   There’s a lot more of The Shining, The Stand, 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), and Shallow Grave (1994) than anything else, and were audiences made aware of that going in to it I like to think the film’s reception would have been more favourable.  Fortunately I was aware of the backlash going in to it, and really enjoyed it.  The open ended aspect to many moments in the film seem to bug me the more I think about it a couple of days later, but at the time I was totally in it.  The director’s said that he knows the answers to all of the questions you’re left with after, and that it was a conscious decision to omit certain things, so you have to trust that is definitely the case.  That aside though, the film is superbly constructed.  Every shot (lots of them very long too) is stunningly intense, and the same can be said for each of the note perfect performances.  Joel Edgerton as Paul, Kit Harington look-a-like Christopher Abbott as Will, and particularly Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the young Travis are stand outs, and only the child in the house falls short (as is so often the case with really young child actors).   It was a toss-up last weekend between seeing this and Spiderman: Homecoming.  Our logic was that It Comes at Night will definitely have it’s showings cut much quicker than the Marvel money printing machine, so we plumped for Joel Edgerton and his beard.   I’m really pleased that we did.

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