by Ashley Naftule
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
It’s cartoonist Walt Kelly’s most famous line, and it’s a line that succinctly sums up a theme that emerges in countless horror films: that the evil of marauding serial killers, zombies, and giant beasts is no match for the venality and cruelty of mankind.
You can see it in the mayor in Jaws, putting the lives of his citizens in danger by keeping the beach opened so it doesn’t cut into that sweet tourist money; Paul Reiser’s smarmy corporate whore Burke in Aliens, willing to lock a woman and child in a room with an acid-spitting killing in a heartbeat if it could save his own ass (it doesn’t); in the paranoid neighbors who descend into mob rule on The Twilight Zone’s“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”; and most of all in George Romero’s zombie films.
At this point, “man is the real enemy” is a dead horse that’s been beaten into a fine paste. Watch any survivalist horror film or zombie TV show made in the last fifteen years and inevitably some character will point out that whatever inhuman thing is trying to kill them isn’t nearly as bad as that dude with the spiked bat who keeps leaning back when he’s talking. It makes one nostalgic for the days when MONSTERS were still the real monsters.
That being said: even the most tired stories can surprise you in the right hands. Such is the case with Trey Edward Shults’ bleak thriller It Comes At Night.
When I first saw it, I had my misgivings. I knew a few folks whose tastes I trusted had seen it and they HATED the movie. It was easy to see why: the trailers and ad campaign for the film were a wee bit misleading. They hinted at a supernatural horror film with some unspeakable evil lurking in the woods. The film that we actually saw was something else entirely.
Spoiler alert: there is no monster. There isn’t even a hint of a monster. If you go in expecting some fucked up demon or Sasquatch to emerge from the black heart of the woods and go ham on our protagonists, you will be very disappointed.
END SPOILER ALERT. IT’S SAFE, GUYS. YOU CAN COME OUT NOW.
If you go into the film with an open mind, it’s liable to win you over as a taut and nerve-wracking film. Focusing on a small family unit trying to survive in a cabin while a viral calamity is decimating the world, the film zeroes in on the details of their day to day struggle for survival. It captures the tedium they feel, the anxiety of living in a house that is rendered pitch black at night without electricity, and their ever-present fear of contamination.
As you can expect in this kind of story, the trio doesn’t stay isolated for long. Who they encounter out in this desolate new world and how they negotiate with them is where the film produces its tension. Every conversation these people have with someone outside their group feels like an interrogation – the paranoia in this world is so thick you can feel it being smeared across every line of dialogue like butter. It’s also where Shults shows his subtlety as a writer, giving his characters ambiguous backstories and little white lies they share with each other that snowball into deep resentments and mistrust.
The film also has a distinct visual style. I haven’t seen dark rooms depicted in such perfect blackness since Lost Highway: the nighttime seems hungry and suffocating in this movie. It Comes At Night also uses dream sequences in a provocative way. Travis, the teenage son of the main couple, has recurring ghoulish nightmares. His nightmares feel real because they’re filmed in such a way that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. Often times we don’t even know we’re in Travis’ dream until he snaps awake. It gives the film an eerie, dreamy quality that also gives an insight into how frayed these people’s minds are. Like The Geto Boys, their minds are playing tricks on them.
It Comes At Night is the kind of film that lingers with you for days after watching it. Which is good – it’s not the kind of film you’ll want to watch again for awhile afterwards. It isn’t a hopeful film, but it is a movie that is a grim reflection of our times: a cautionary tale about what happens to people when they go isolationist and lose the ability to trust their fellow man. When we’re so busy looking for enemies outside of us that we fail to see the enemy within.