1 Aug 2017

It Comes at Night is proof that ‘post-horror’ is overhyped

11:46 am on 1 August 2017

Haute horror is so hot right now - but why?


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Photo: NZ International Film Festival

Photo: NZ International Film Festival

It’s always fun when the ever-optimistic liberal media come up with a stupid "new" genre. The invention of post-horror is no different: Supposedly necessary to describe a spate of recent films combining the lowly characteristics of scary movies with the redeeming qualities of wanky ones, the post-horror tag has been bandied about willy-nilly lately, and seemingly any artsy film lately can lay claim to it.

Of all the films to be lumped into the post-horror category, It Comes at Night has in many ways the strongest claim to such a label - and as such crystallises the many problems that arise with it.  

The second film from director Trey Schultz, following his much lauded and equally dread-filled family drama Krisha, It Comes at Night is set in a mysterious dystopian future, the details of which are kept sketchy. All we need to know is that a very bad thing has happened and that civilisation as we know it is all but destroyed as a result.

That bad thing is a highly contagious, rapidly acting disease somewhat akin to the bubonic plague, causing a fun mix of blood vomit and sore looking boils. Other than swift execution and a very thorough corpse burning, there is no apparent cure.

It is as they are delivering such a fate on one of their own that we join the small scared family at the heart of It Comes at Night. But no sooner have father Paul, mother Sarah and teenage son old Travis euthanised and cremated their maternal grandfather, than they have a break-in: a young man who needs supplies.

Deciding that he poses no immediate threat and coming to the conclusion that they can each benefit by pooling their resources, Paul and Sarah invite Will, along with his wife Kim, and exceptionally cute toddler son Andrew, to come and stay - beginning an uneasy rift in an already precarious domestic order.

Seen through the eyes of the sweet, traumatised Travis, It Comes at Night imagines the already unpleasant chore of having house guests with the added burden of extreme paranoia - and, as you might imagine, it's not a ton of fun.

For gore fans lured by a title that suggests a more traditional source of horror like monsters or zombies, there may be disappointment. Nothing so unsubtle ever veers into Shultz’s gritty, naturalistic frame. In fact, apart from Will, nothing shows up at night. Rather, the greatest threat to the two families is not whatever the boarded up house keeps out, but the growing tension within.

For some this subtlety will be the film’s masterstroke: It Comes at Night is a grim affair in which less is more, and grotesque yet arty dream sequences make up more or less all the gore teased in the trailer.

For others though, there will be an element of oversell here. While the sense of dread is thick and pervasive it is also smugly opaque, walking a precarious line between sophisticated dramatic tension and dissatisfactory absence of substance.

Whatever you might be hoping for from It Comes at Night, it would be hard to argue that all this apparently tasteful restraint actually goes any way to imbuing the story with added significance; nor does it give particularly more depth to an abrupt, ambiguous and extraordinarily harrowing final act.

In fact the biggest difference between this and "traditional" horror films is that It Comes at Night is having absolutely no fun whatsoever.

It’s interesting to think that, in the time in which we find ourselves - itself something of a dystopian future - someone would want to make or see a film so devoid of hope or humour, even of the darkest variety.

This is not to say that horror is not welcome in the current era, or that there is no desire for it. But where a film like Get Out - that arguably deals with significantly more serious and pressing matters - finds nuance by casting a wry eye on its subject matter, Schultz apparently feels no such impulse.

The stupidest thing about coming up with a term like post-horror, and then using it give added esteem and significance to a film like It Comes at Night, is that nothing to be found here is actually new (or post-anything for that matter). Psychological horror has been around forever, as have moralistic subtexts, ambiguous endings, and general cinematic bleakness.

Where It Comes at Night does depart from the conventions of its genre is with a nihilism and nastiness that, in a different time, might feel distant enough to enjoy from afar. As things are, however, it feels overbearing - yet another solemn, sober look at the depths to which humanity can descend. As if we needed a reminder.    

It Comes at Night is currently screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.