It Comes at Night first came to my attention over the summer, when a writer for the Guardian coined (or tried to coin) the term “post-horror”, to describe not only It Comes at Night, but other recent releases like Personal Shopper and A Ghost Story. Here were films that borrowed iconography and plot elements from the horror genre—and maybe even had a scare or two—but whose pacing and focus on cosmic, spiritual, or existential concerns made them more at home in an arthouse or on the festival circuit than in Netflix’s Horror carousel. Once the term “post-horror” hit the hivemind of the internet, a lot of genre fans rightly called bullshit, and they have two good reasons for doing so. First, because the term implies that there’s something about the genre that needed a high-minded corrective—”isn’t it about time?” said the Guardian—when directors like Brian De Palma and George Romero were able to put provocative subtext or sophisticated craft into packages a hell of a lot schlockier than any of the movies listed above. And second, because the traits of a “post-horror” film (an emphasis on poetic visuals, dreamy pacing, and cosmic/spiritual/existential concerns over conventional frights) aren’t really new to the genre at all, a small cluster of them in a few months notwithstanding.
But if there’s one value of the term “post-horror” trying to be forced into existence, it’s in how it draws attention to the way such films are marketed, and to the gap between critics’ and audiences’ perception of them. To the extent that any film’s reception can be numerically quantified—and isn’t that what the internet keeps trying to do with everything?—there’s no doubt that there seems to be a gap between “the critics” (RottenTomatoes) and “the people” (IMDb, CinemaScore, etc.) when it comes to It Comes at Night. As for whether it’s the movie’s fault, or just that weekend audiences who pay to see a horror flick want something less cryptic and more viscerally immediate, I think in this case they can split the difference.
So how is the film? Pretty good, so let it never be said an enterprising filmmaker can’t end the world on a tiny budget. Set in a world where a plague has wiped out most of human civilization, an interracial family tries to scrape by in their house in the woods. The son is troubled by nightmares, the (white) father protects them with a cold, tribal pragmatism. When they agree to let in another, much more more noticeably happy family, the tense truce that ensues builds to a bloody climax. For most of its runtime, it’s a mood piece, trying to make a cramped wooden house as atmospheric and unpredictable as the Overlook Hotel, with varying results. Frustration can be understandable, since the film’s sparse scene-by-scene storytelling suffers from a certain vagueness: a vague post-apocalyptic scenario and a vague “it” stalking the woods yield a vague allegory—something about American isolation, something about paranoia, maybe something about race—that, like many films from the indie sphere, feels like a strong concept that had to be padded to reach 90 minutes. It is only in the third act that the vagueness starts to lift, at least thematically, leading to a terrific payoff for anyone who doesn’t insist that stories be tidy. The biggest mystery is an open chasm, but there’s something rewarding about its core: a traumatized young boy whose dream sequences have a hint of prophesy, but who is ultimately unable to change the direction of the narrative at all. It’s enough to mark writer-director Trey Edward Shults as a talent to watch: a filmmaker with ideas awaiting a more robust treatment. Here’s rooting for him.
It Comes at Night is available to rent on iTunes. Beware of red doors.