I’ve always enjoyed titling pieces on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a more appropriate title for a movie. And I say that because when you walk into the theater to see It Comes at Night, I’d highly advise you to surrender all expectations. At a glance, this suggestion may come across as a criticism, which is not my intent. I actually really invested my attention and energy into this film as I watched it, and I commend its originality, especially in a sometimes murky sea of similarly constructed modern horror films. I have nothing scathing to say about it, but I think someone sitting in front of me and to my left said out loud as the credits were rolling, “What the fuck was that?” To be sure, the type of story you’re expecting from the fairly elusive trailer is not the story you’re likely to receive. Even the title of the movie seems crafted to intentionally deceive. At the end of the day, because I always like to define horror broadly, I’ll say that yes, I’d situate It Comes At Night in the horror genre, but in many ways I found it highly unlike the horror I’m used to. Bearing that in mind, I can’t help but talk about the film without giving away more than the trailer intends to reveal. I also have a tricky habit of just saying whatever I want about a film on this blog, which often entails including spoilers (sorry). So I’m not sure how much of the plot this post will ultimately reveal as I sit down to write, but know that by reading it you’re going to have information that the trailers don’t give you. I will give you more warning about major spoilers. With that in mind, continue if you dare.
If you’re like me, you’ll have no idea where the hell you are when the film starts. (Oh, gosh…this is so tricky. How much do I tell you? Arrrggghhh, it’s so hard to keep a good – or depressing– secret). Okay, I’m like that friend who you tell a secret to, but then they blurt it out in front of a crowded room fifteen minutes later. I can’t hold it back—sorry. The movie starts with a family of three shooting an ailing grandpa and burning his body in a pit behind their house. Think infernal flames, think dense smoke, think recently dug grave, the whole macabre shebang. Gahh! There it is. I told myself I’d try to give specifics less, but I just get so excited to talk about all of a film’s details, and this beginning was a unique (and very, very uncomfortable) one. The logical questions I asked when I saw the opening scene were twofold: First, who are these people? Second, why are they killing grandpa?
I’m fairly confident in saying that this movie is at least semi-apocalyptic and thus futuristic. Because the family lives in the woods without the accoutrements of surrounding civilization, and because they’ve reached a point of general social decline that makes time look like it’s moving backward instead of forward (for example, in the absence of electricity, they walk around with lanterns), it almost looks “old-timey,” but the clothes they wear – and the face masks they wear when they enter grandpa’s room – are contemporary. So are the cars. Grandpa is very obviously sick at the film’s start, and he has sores on his body that look kind of like Kaposi’s sarcomas in the advanced stage of the AIDS virus, which would have been my initial guess except for the fact that when the rest of the family goes into his room, they wear huge face masks to protect them from a presumably air-born pathogen (and then kill grandpa to stop it from spreading). Based on other character dialogue integrated into the plot later, the movie has a very The Walking Dead vibe in that a lethal plague starts in the cities and spreads rapidly throughout the country (and perhaps the world), killing people and the infrastructure of society quickly and leaving few individuals in its wake. The key way this film is different from The Walking Dead, though, is that nobody turns into a zombie (which, yes, is a pretty significant difference). The sick develop sores, they get sweaty, they vomit blood, but nobody’s being resurrected as a half-alive version of their former selves.
Spoiler alert!: This is the very element of the film that most interests me: Despite knowing that the characters were trying to survive the plague, I spent a good part of the film waiting to find out what the supernatural, horror-esque entity would be before I realized that the primary impetus of fear is twofold, and neither cause is supernatural: First, as evidenced by one family’s interaction with another family they find, people are incredibly afraid and mistrusting of one another. Other people become a threat (again, like The Walking Dead). Second, it’s the disease itself that’s scary. These people are absolutely horrified of a plague that kills you quickly with fever and semi-disfiguring soars. There’s no resignation to the likelihood of an ultimate death among this film’s characters. Rather, there’s an aggressive will to live that provokes questionable decision-making and near-madness. As such, this is one of the only horror films I’ve ever seen that doesn’t use a serial killer or a supernatural entity to scare its viewer. The “bad guy,” so to speak, the thing that the characters all fear (and that we come to fear for them) is the plague itself. While some of my fellow theater-goers found this disappointing, I thought it was brilliant. A large part of this film examines how people treat one another and survive in an apocalyptic scenario. Another part demonstrates our fear of sickness and death. But there are no boogeymen (or, as a nod to Sinister, no Mr. Boogie), and we’re left with the sheer horror involved in contemplating the fact that no matter how technologically advanced we are, we’re far from immune from something like this happening – from a virus annihilating a large part of the population, or the population.
If you haven’t seen the movie and you’re already disappointed, think of it this way: What could have possibly lurked behind the red door they featured so much in the previews that would have been better—more novel, more interesting, scarier? While I was hoping to be afraid, what I would have encountered, if the film wasn’t about a plague, would probably be some CGI demon or monster that may have made the film stereotypically scary without it being particularly remarkable or memorable. The red door is significant because the main family featured in the film lives in a sprawling house in the forest, and every door and window is boarded to keep out the plague, except one. One door leads to a small room that connects to another door, a red door, attached to the house. The red door, in other words, leads to a location that is symbolically situated on the dividing line between life and death. This is the room grandpa is in at the film’s start, which is apropos since he’s struggling to stay alive as it is and he’s about to be shot. The house, boarded up for safety, at least seems to protect the family and to indicate sanctuary and life. Since the plague is presumably an air-born pathogen, everything outside the house is at least in some way linked to sickness and imminent death. The red door leads to a small room that sits on the spatial dividing line between life and death. On the one hand, then, the red door symbolizes the closeness of death. On the other hand, it is a literal emblem of the division between life and death.
Okay, definite spoilers here. Sorry, I just have to: And on the other hand, the red door’s significance is purely an illusion. Every society must somehow negotiate the presence of death, and the boundary between life and death. I argued in my last post that we try to put up thicker walls, to “brush death under the rug,” to turn away from that which resembles death and more or less deny its existence, to hide from the grim reaper until we can’t hide anymore because he’s towering above us while the curve of his sickle glimmers and blinds us. In this film, the attempt to “wall out” death is completely evident. The film’s main family (who ultimately invite another family to live with them) take almost excessive precautions to avoid contracting the plague. Like the valiant heroes of The Walking Dead, they fight for life unrelentingly amidst a situation that would seem hopeless to some. And yet, they go too far. They act brutal and violent toward others to save themselves (with Grandpa, and again later in the story). They resort to paranoia and killing because they’re sure that they can defeat this pathogen of nature. If they just construct the right dividing lines, kill the right people, they’ll keep the plague out.
Only, they don’t keep the plague out. After a lot of suspenseful, brutal, troubling scenes, the family’s 17-year-old son, Christopher (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), starts vomiting blood, then wakes up in bed with sweat clinging to him and lesions on his face. Weirdly, like Dr. Ian Malcolm says in the original “Jurassic Park,” nature always finds away. More importantly, the red door that divided the family between illusory “safety” in the house and the possibility of death outside of the house was really of no significance whatsoever, because we can’t divide life and death that neatly, and we certainly can’t contain it. Death, the message seems to be, will go where it wants to go. After all, the series of events that lead to the plague entering the house and infecting the son are bizarre and unpredictable. They happen despite every precaution, because life (and death) happen, no matter what we do. The sad part is, the parents of the family, especially the father, Paul (Joel Edgerton) resort to ruthlessness and inhumanity to try to protect themselves. In doing so, they kill with needlessness and futility. They think that killing others will save them from their own (inevitable) demise, because they don’t realize that death – and that the plague, specifically – don’t work that way. By the movie’s conclusion, the parents have committed acts of heinous violence, and their son has very obviously contracted the plague anyway. Quite possibly, the parents will, too.
I have a book specifically about plagues. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, but never have. So my knowledge of the plague is reduced to knowing that they happened in the Bible, and in other examples of not-so-recent history. Of course, “The Black Death” was a famous plague of the 14th century, but a major plague wreaked havoc in China as recently as 1855 (thank you History Channel website). According to Wikipedia, they were common in areas of French Algiers at the beginning of the 20th century (but more on that in a minute). I think we associate the word “plague” with older times, but we’re not so far removed from the phenomena, and of course such events can always recur. There are all sorts of grotesque images conjured with the word “plague,” including mass burial sites and those creepy old-fashioned plague masks. Thanks to Monty Python, I also think of the chant, “Bring out your dead,” and a man sitting on a cart of corpses remarking nonchalantly “I’m not dead yet.” The plague, to that end, has become a sort of mythic cultural artifact that we fear while feeling relatively distanced from. Of course, we have terrible illnesses that we haven’t cured, in this country and around the world, but so far as I know, America has never contended with an air-born pathogen deadly enough to be given the label, “plague.” There’s a lot of sheer terror, I would imagine, involved in having such a bloody, deadly disease floating in the air around you—one reason why it’s easy to be frustrated with the characters’ actions in this film but hard to completely condemn their decisions throughout. The film excellently captures the consistent panic and paranoia involved in living during a plague, which is perhaps what makes the film so scary (coupled with, of course, the possibility that this could actually happen to us).
To throw a literary twist into the mix, this film also made me ponder Albert Camus’s fictional depiction of Oran, a real French Algerian city that actually did suffer from plagues in history and was featured in his 1947 book The Plague. Camus writes about The Plague to examine how human beings react in horrible situations, scenarios that may seem hopeless. How do people respond to being quarantined, and thus completely stuck, inside a plague-infested city? From what I recall, Camus’s musings are a lot more optimistic than the ones this film provides. In Camus’s novel, a valiant doctor works closely and tirelessly with the sick, keeping them comfortable until they die. One man, I think a journalist, keeps trying to bribe the guards to leave the city, but ultimately many of the main characters join the doctor and enter into public service to try to mitigate the plague’s effects and help the sufferers. People keep tabs on weekly death numbers and cling to hope that things are getting better, and eventually the death count dwindles and the plague is gone. When the plague is officially announced as over, a group of the main characters swim in a sea together blissfully. Unlike the sea that I analyzed in a recent examination of a Poe poem, here the sea seems to indicate peace, safety, and camaraderie. While it is highly likely I’m remembering the text’s more heroic characters as opposed to those who may have been selfish or corrupt, Camus seems to suggest that in times of tragedy and turmoil, many people have the capability to bind together, work with one another, trust one another, and do what is in their control (when so much is out of their control) not just for themselves, but to protect the greater good. Indeed, working with the sick, in The Plague, allows those who would otherwise sit around fearing the plague to metaphorically “get out of themselves” and be useful to others. They put themselves, perhaps, at greater risk, but they prefer risking their lives to doing nothing.
This is not at all the vision It Comes at Night provides us with. Similarly, though I haven’t watched The Walking Dead for over a season, it’s not a vision The Walking Dead clings to either. Of course, Camus’s Oran isn’t an apocalyptic situation like The Walking Dead or, presumably, like this film, but in both It Comes at Night and The Walking Dead the characters are ridden with anxiety and fear of anyone else – or, anyone outside the immediate family unit. While in The Walking Dead our main characters, who come from a variety of places, do manage to join together and form bonds despite the hostility of their foes and the outside world in general, It Comes at Night suggests a bleaker reality. Indeed, the film seems to intimate that in a situation as dire as a near-apocalyptic plague, most human beings will trust nobody and sacrifice others to save themselves.
I would like to hope that’s not really the case with humanity. I think we have evidence that in times of trouble, there are many individuals (perhaps braver than I) who are willing to risk themselves for the well-being of others, and it seems cynical and bleak to speculate that in the trauma of an apocalyptic scenario, instead of turning to one another for comfort, we’d all turn against one another. However, I’m even more hopeful that I’m never put in a real-life situation where I get a chance to answer these questions. It is, however, always interesting to consider what each of us, as individuals, might do, when faced with the imminence or likeliness of our death. And, like much horror, It Comes at Night seeks (albeit with more originality and depth than some films) to answer that question. As for considering the seemingly deceptive title (because a plague doesn’t necessarily come at night), well, I have my thoughts, but I’ll let you watch the film to formulate yours…mostly because it’s 3 A.M., and I need to go to bed.