The marketing campaign for writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature, It Comes at Night, dealt in absolutes. Trailers reiterated ad nauseam the vital importance of never going out at night. The ominous red door was to remain locked at all times. The paranoid rules of this world were laid out amidst clips of tense character interactions and foreboding imagery that indicated a very gnarly infection at play. Most of all, the marketing campaign asked the question, what exactly is it that comes at night?
The marketing succeeded in its goal of building interest in the film. Between the amped up paranoid energy of the trailers and the mystery behind the titular “it,” It Comes at Night quickly became one of the most anticipated horror films of the year. That anticipation boiled over into full-blown excitement when the initial critical reviews lauded the film.
Yet, upon release, audiences discovered that unlike what was indicated in the marketing, It Comes at Night doesn’t exist in the realm of absolutes. At least, not in the way that audiences expected. Expectations of what constitutes as horror, combined with the assumption that the film’s title was to be interpreted as literal, left audiences disappointed and perplexed. It isn't a high-octane viral outbreak thriller, nor is it the jump scare creature feature that many guessed. Instead, it is a deeply haunting, nerve-shredding micro-examination of grief and humanity.
For Shults, this was a cathartic, yet horrific, navigation through his own grief over losing his father to cancer. His personal imprint on the story is clear from the outset; the film opens to Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah telling her infected father that it’s okay to let go, echoes of Shults' experience with his own father. It’s a jolting introduction to this world, seeing Sarah’s father unresponsive yet in obvious pain with his darkened veins and labored breathing. Watching a loved one die, especially in such fashion, leaves a lasting mark. One that reflects in an audience and Shults’ proxy Travis, played by the amazing Kelvin Harrison Jr. Travis is coming of age in a world long since ravaged by an apocalyptic plague, creating an interesting dynamic between youthful naiveté and a subconscious ravaged by his bleak reality.
The terms of the plague and its scope are left a blank canvas for the audiences’ imagination. The opening scene parcels out all of the information the viewer really needs to know about the virus. It’s highly infectious and without cure, which is all these characters really know, too, as they’ve long since been cut off from the rest of the world. There’s an established routine of attempted normalcy while the looming threat of infection promises to overtake them with one wrong step.
The viral outbreak film has been done many times over. That’s not the story Shults is interested in telling. Instead, he hones in on one innocuous family and forces them to face the ultimate fear in the most intense fashion, which is the fear of death. How far do we risk our humanity for the sake of preserving the life we’ve built with our loved ones? What price are we willing to pay to save them? The trailer boasts that fear turns men into monsters. Though audiences may have interpreted that in a more literal sense, it’s a harrowing truth made all the more chilling by its connection to reality.
Granted, Shults isn’t the first to reflect upon humanity in this way, but he may be the first to make you feel it like this. From Drew Daniels' stunning cinematography and the effective sound design, to the eerie practical lighting, the night becomes personified. It’s an oppressive shroud that leaves you vulnerable in the darkness. Through it, Travis’ nightmares become tangible. The dread pervades to the very core.
Unless you’re waiting on a very different film to unfold, that is. Just what exactly comes at night is left open to interpretation. While the film mirrors Shults’ fears and experiences, he wants the viewer to imprint their own fears and experiences on the film. The ambiguity is intentional, and while he’s layered in enough clues to offer up his take on the story, he ultimately wants the audience to fill in their own blanks. To interpose their own loved ones into this tale of horror.
Because this is a horror movie, but it's not horror by conventional standards; there’s no clear monstrous villain or jump scares to be found. The traditional horror film the marketing campaign would lead you to believe exists simply doesn’t. What does exist is a deeply unsettling portrait of a family at the mercy of death incarnate, one of the best films of the year by a new, important voice. It’s claustrophobic in its intimacy. It Comes at Night doesn’t jolt with loud bangs or fantastical creatures; it quietly embeds itself under your skin and haunts. Ignore the trailers, let go of expectations, and let Shults’ sophomore feature take you on a terrifying journey that forces you to confront life’s inevitable conclusion.