It Comes at Night (2017)

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Riley Keough, David Pendleton

Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Rating: 1 2 3 4

What is 'post-horror'? Guardian writer Steve Rose recently kicked off a bit of an online stooshie in the horror world when he applied this label to It Comes At Night, alongside various other movies. As Warped Perspective's Nia Edwards Behi points out, this is a load of baloney. It would appear that post-horror is Guardian-speak for 'horror that people who don't like horror movies reluctantly admit is good'.

Bad Grandpa (David Pendleton) in It Comes at Night

Horror, Rose argues, is the safest genre at all because it's utterly rule-bound: 'vampires don’t have reflections; the "final girl" will prevail; the warnings of the gas station attendant/mystical Native American/creepy old woman will go unheeded; the evil will ultimately be defeated, or at least explained, but not in a way that closes off the possibility of a sequel.'

Er, hello! Horror has been pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules since like, forever (off the top of my head, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Freaks, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead… the list goes on); breaking the rules is all part of the fun. And it's not even as if the films he cites do break the rules particularly. Get Out is a stonking horror flick that confronts racism in a way few mainstream movies would dare, yet its plot (young man is seduced into danger by attractive woman, eventually escapes) is that of countless vampire films. Likewise, The Witch is utterly compelling, yet follows firmly in the nihilistic rural gothic footsteps laid down in the 1960s by the likes of Witchfinder General.

Because believe it or not, educated, intelligent people like horror and are making horror. Yes, there are rubbish horror films out there, just as there are rubbish rom-coms, rubbish thrillers, rubbish action movies and rubbish arthouse films, but there's no need to come up with a brand new genre   unless it's simply 'good horror'. So enough prevaricating: is It Comes at Night a good horror film?

Well that was easy: yes.

Have you ever seen those 'Protect and Survive' films or leaflets? Produced by the British Government during the Cold War, these handy public information bulletins laid out practical hints on how to survive a nuclear attack. Starting with how to construct a bunker under the stairs using your mattress, and ending with how to wrap up dead bodies to shove them out the back door. Blimey, you think to yourself, I could never do that.

Joel Edgerton and Kelvin Harrison Jr in It Comes at Night

Yet for Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (a sterling performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr), this is their life. A devastating sickness has brought society to its knees, and they are holed up in their house in the woods, trying to survive – and if that means shooting poorly grandpa in the head and burning his body in a pit, so be it.

But when a stranger (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break in, the initial danger appears to become a benefit as a new family joins them in their self-sufficient isolation. But can these newcomers be trusted? Come to that, can Paul and Sarah?
The atmosphere positively crackles with tension in this gripping, unsettling and, at times, kinda frightening horror thriller. (Although guess what, guys, there are jump scares and dream sequences – eat your heart out, James Wan.)

Yet the film is also a compelling and horribly believable character study of people under extreme pressure, with no-one knowing who to trust or what exactly is going on out in the dark woods at night. What (non-post?) post (zombie) apocalyptic horror like the later Living Dead films, the 28 Days Later films and The Walking Dead spell out luridly, with their shambling corpses, bickering survivors and gun-toting outlaw dictators, It Comes At Night leaves hidden and implicit, and it's all the more chilling for it. The dark, impenetrability of the forest surrounding the families saw me squinting and craning my neck to make out shapes. Twisty trunk or lurking figure? Yikes! And yet at the same time I felt desperately sorry for poor teenage Travis, with his whole life ahead of him and precious little to look forward to.

Post-horror? Yeah, whatever. I didn't feel I was watching anything particularly new or ground-breaking. (The Road? 10 Cloverfield Lane? Come to that, Night of the Living Dead?) But I'll settle for smart, classy, nail-biting, thought-provoking and actually quite scary horror. That do ya?

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