It Comes at Night (Shults; 2017)

While genre is a necessary tool helping us to classify film, it’s a far from perfect one.  Comedy and drama as genres are so broad as to be nearly no help at all in letting us decide if a film is one we want to check out.  Even more narrowed genres like science fiction can mean a multitude of things – is it a movie about space exploration? artificial intelligence? fantasy which uses faux technology in place of magic?  I’m glad I got to see It Comes at Night with a small crew of friends, for as we were leaving the theater one of them remarked, “I was expecting a horror movie.”  I completely understand why she said that, because It Comes at Night uses gore very sparingly, and what little it does use is either unrealistic or flashed on screen so quickly our brains can’t process what our eyes just saw.  The director goes out of his way to avoid anything resembling a jump scare, going so far as to change camera angles when a character is walking up behind another just to make sure the audience isn’t startled.  There is no supernatural creature stalking a group of protagonists taking them out one by one, nor a psychic worming their way into anyone’s head.  But, It Comes at Night is still most definitely a horror movie.  In a way, it’s one of the most horrific movies I’ve ever seen.

It Comes at Night is an incredibly low budget movie.  If it weren’t for the obvious quality of the cameras used to capture the story and the fact that Joel Edgerton plays our lead character (former history professor Paul) this could be a movie that a very talented amateur could film in their own home.  It Comes at Night uses no CGI effects, the sets are very barebones – just an oldish house and the woods surrounding it, and while this isn’t the first film for the majority of the cast, not a one is an instantly recognizable name and face.  This means that the entire story hinges on acting, script, music,  and cinematography, and all four of these elements are absolutely top notch.

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The horror in It Comes at Night comes from feelings of claustrophobia, isolation, and being kept in the dark both literally and figuratively.  Drew Daniels through his cinematography paints the perfect picture to keep us in a state of dread by showing us that not only are we stuck in a world made up largely of bare, long, dark corridors with no handy exits, but even when we are not in that closed in world there is still no help anywhere to be found in the outside world.  Camerawork when done well can be art, it can excite, and in this case, it can instill in us paranoia and hopelessness as everywhere we look there is no escape from the trap gradually closing in on us, but never giving us any real clue as to what that trap is, just that it’s there.

The performances in It Comes at Night are amazing in their understatement.  This again, isn’t a typical horror film as there is very little panic, screaming, nor speeches about the thing out there that’s going to get us.  The people here are very real – the father who is devoted to protecting his family, but not always knowing the best way to do that and having to keep a brave front (Joel Edgerton).  The mother who wants the same, but feels the best way to do that is to back up her husband and lend him guidance but never undercut him (Carmen Ejogo).  The seventeen year-old boy who has no companions excepting his mother, father, and dog until they let another family move into their house and he finds himself being drawn in the way seventeen year-olds are to the young wife in that family (Kelving Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough respectively).   Every performance here is nuanced and realistic and never once goes over the top.  We get that these are real people, we get why each acts the way they do, and all this is again absolutely necessary in amplifying our dread.  We not only feel for the characters, we allow them to become stand ins for ourselves.

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Then there is the script.  This is a story that doesn’t rely on the usual scares nor a lot of dialogue, it’s a story that relies on making sure the audience doesn’t know anything more than the characters in the story do, which is really what makes them our perfect stand ins.   Many of the events in the story take place because of something that happened outside of our protagonists field of vision and thus outside their knowledge, and these events are never explained to us.  Trey Edward Shults, both writer and director of It Comes at Night, said explicitly that while he knows the impetus of everything that happens in the film’s running time, he very purposely left us without any clues that would let us know anything more than our characters do.  This is the element that truly solidifies It Comes at Night into the realm of horror more so than any other.  Even in films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity which It Comes at Night has a lot in common with we are given some sort of release in the end as we find out what it is that’s been tormenting us throughout the film.  It Comes at Night gives us no such release.

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Final verdict:  It Comes at Night is a film for film critics and auteurs more than for general audiences.  There is little to no fun to be had in this movie, as it is a non-stop barrage on your emotional state with never ending dread, claustrophobia, paranoia, and powerlessness.  This elevates horror to a level we rarely see and makes it some of the most realistic, and therefore least fun, horror ever seen in film.  The true enjoyment to be gleaned from this movie is the dissection of it – the study of how such minimalist pieces done so well can make for such an intense film.  If that is your thing, then I can nearly guarantee you will love It Comes at Night.  But, if you are going in to see a standard scream fest, you will not only be disappointed, you may honestly be devastated.  It Comes at Night is not for the faint of heart, and it’s one I recommend to only a very select few, but for those select few who can really get into how a less is more take on film making can get to us on such a deeply emotional level then this suddenly becomes a must see film.

 

Life (Espinosa; 2017)

I’ve been talking quite a bit lately in my reviews how horror is going through something of a mini-Renaissance of late.  It seems the writers, directors, and producers of these films have at long last figured out that audiences are tired of and want more than jump scares, story arcs that work only because of idiotic decisions, and cheap camera tricks meant to mislead the viewer but ultimately just very temporarily conceal the plot holes riddled throughout the story.  Life is the first science fiction horror film which is a part of this trend, and it continues it admirably for the most part, but it unfortunately does fall prey to a few cliches and traps at times.

Life is the story of six astronauts from around the world living and working on the International Space Station.  A sample collected by a probe on Mars leads Earth scientists to believe that there could once have been extraterrestrial life on our neighbor, and it is up to these six to grab the sample and then study what it contains.  A dormant, but definitely living, single celled organism is found amongst the Martian sample and humanity now knows for certain that we are not alone in the universe.  As to what happens next, I did mention this is a horror movie.

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Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writers of Life, are most definitely at least acquainted with biological science, as the life form they discover is based on what we know of evolutionary and biological sciences today.  As they study it and discover its nature we see a creature that is completely different from anything living on Earth, but still follows the laws of Natural Selection.  I am far from a scientist myself, and biology was absolutely my worst subject when I was still in school, but I could tell that the writers were very concerned with creating a truly alien being, but also a truly realistic one.  It was so well done, in fact, that at a point in its growth when the alien develops something approximating a face, I was a little disappointed that those involved in making the film, whether it be the writers, the director, or someone else, didn’t completely commit to giving us this truly alien thing.

The human characters in the film are a bit of a mixed bag.  All are realistic, perhaps too much so, and fleshed about as well as can be expected for six people you get barely an hour with before Life does what horror movies do.  We understand quickly and naturally their working and emotional relationships to one another, who is the boss, who are friends, who are attracted to each other, and so on, but we are never given enough time to learn who any of them truly are.  The Japanese member of the crew works on the stations mechanical parts and his wife gives birth to a daughter early in the movie, and that’s about all we know of him, and that’s more than a few of the other members of the crew.  I like that none of the characters are stereotypes, and that the actors, and thus the fictional crew, have good chemistry with one another, but only two of the actors, Ryan Reynolds and Ariyon Bakare managed to give performances strong enough that I actually cared about them as individuals, something pretty necessary in a horror flick.

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The conceit of the movie taking place entirely on the International Space Station also works wonderfully for the most part.  The opening scene in the film gives us an excellent idea of what it would be like to live in space as it shoots our characters in close ups with no anchor to give the camera a focus.  It will weave around, switching directions slowly, and even gradually turning upside down giving us the idea of what being weightless inside a technologically advanced tin can would feel like.  After establishing this feeling, the weightless camera does go away, probably for the better, but we are still given a very claustrophobic but now somehow familiar environment for our characters to be hunted down in.  I was reminded a lot of Alien while watching Life, it’s very obviously the biggest influence on the creators of this film, but unlike the Nostromo in that movie, the International Space Station has rooms so small that two people inside any one of them would become very cramped, making for an even more frightening setting once the festivities get underway.  But, much like the alien life form itself, someone in the making of the film could not completely commit to their ultra realistic and incredibly cramped setting and had to give us in the finale a plot device that entirely ruins that spell cast on us which made us believe that this really could happen.

The camerawork and the special effects in the film also fit the bill of the rest of the film.  Very unobtrusive and realistic for the most part.  The alien life form itself does have a few problems with the realism of its CGI in places, but due to its design, these are easily forgiven and many may not even notice them.  The camerawork is workmanlike and never relents on giving us the feeling of claustrophobia so necessary for the movie to work and shows us what we need to see without pulling cheap tricks…  until the finale.  This is another element of the film done so well until once again the film’s creators broke with the style of the rest of the film and rely entirely on a cheap camera trick for the film’s climax.  I won’t say more than that, I feel badly about saying that much, but that cheap camera trick in the end was the most disappointing of this flawed, but overall really well done horror film, and I would be remiss in not mentioning it.

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Final recommendation:  If you are a science fiction or horror fanatic (or both), then this is a movie that will definitely please, even if it will never be listed among the classics of the genre.  It’s a movie that tries hard to emulate Alien while still being its own entity, and in that it certainly succeeds.  However, it’s a film that at times is too realistic for its own good when it shouldn’t be and can’t commit to its own tone in the end when it’s most important.  Most everything about this film is really well done, and it’s worth seeing just for the alien life form they give us, but unless you are the type who must see everything possible on the large screen for the theater experience, then this is one you can wait for and rent eventually, or maybe see at a matinee so you can pay less and still get the full “we’re in outer space” experience.