Over the last couple of years there’s been a movement towards horror films that engage more consciously with the ways in which horror tropes might code assumptions about race, even or especially those that appear, on the surface, to have little to do with race. The most iconic of these is Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but there have been many others, made by directors of various races, one of the most unusual of which is Trey Michael Shults’ It Comes at Night. Where Peele takes a single, omniscient trope – home invasion – and exposes it as a trope of white fear – a trope that almost inevitably takes on an element of comedy, or bathos, when used to express black fear – Shults adopts a somewhat different angle with It Comes at Night, gesturing towards a number of horror tropes and scenarios that all, in different ways, code ideas about race, but never quite committing to or identifying with any of them. At the heart of the film is a mixed race family – father Paul (Joel Edgerton), who is white, mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), who is black, and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who is mixed race – who we meet living in the middle of the woods, in the wake of what appears to be some kind of apocalyptic or cataclysmic event, although the precise nature of that event, along with its epicentre and fallout zone, remains largely unknown to and unarticulated by the characters, and even more oblique to the audience.
From the outset, that scenario is so synonymous with white survivalism – holed up in a cabin in the woods – that it’s utterly incongruous to see it narrativised around a mixed race family. Accordingly, Shults pulls back from strict survivalist horror, gesturing towards a number of different sources of terror – some natural, some supernatural – that constellate around Travis’ relationship with his mother, father and, above all, his dog. Positioned at the front of the house and trained to guard the family, this is the kind of pet that, in an earlier era or a less racially conscious film, would have been used to symbolise and protect the sanctity of the white household – the kind of dog that played centre role in Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, and the decades of suburban sanctuary that it lampooned. Given that this is already a mixed race family, however, this dog’s preternatural perception is perpetually displaced onto a source of horror that is too amorphous, ambiguous and looming to ever be quite tied down to a single threat or entity. At first, it seems associated with a young white boy that Paul finds in the woods, but, as it turns out, this boy comes from a neighbouring family who are in exactly the same predicament, leading to an innocuous and almost idyllic second act in which the two familes – one mixed race, one white – come together and share their resources, time and skills. At this moment, it almost feels as if Shults is so aware of the extent to which tropes of invasion, infection and intrusion are driven by racial prejudice that he has almost decided to relinquish the horror of the film altogether in favour of a surprising and somewhat radical return to normality.
The third act of the film, however, devolves into horror once again, and yet with both mixed race and white families normalised and harmonised, this horror becomes more dissociated from any narrative exigency, until it feels as if the film is trying to envisage a broader horror potentiality – a sense of all the different directions horror might take, not unlike Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods – rather than committing to a single horror trope. To some extent, the broad plot outline facilitates that, since even up until the end it’s clear that nobody in the film knows quite what is going in the world outside their immediate purview. As in The Blair Witch Project, the woods here are presented as off the grid, but also as somehow being complicit in what caused the grid in the first place. As a result, it’s often quite hard to tell whether we’re in a marginal or central space in terms of the broader narrative lifeworld, which works quite elegantly for a film that is clearly keen to avoid marginalising black folk, but equally anxious not to simply reinstate them within a horror trope or narrative structure that was responsible for marginalising them in the first place.
In itself, that’s enough to produce a radically indeterminate horror – so indeterminate that the fact of an ending at all is something of an anticlimax, let alone the somewhat pat survivalist ending that Shults opts for here. Before that, however, he does a terrific job of dissociating the horror from any one source, making for a series of great set pieces – almost an anthology of short films, rather than a sustained horror vision. Whereas Get Out identifies with a single horror trope in an absurd way, It Comes at Night presents something like a fragmented concatenation of horror tropes, all of which are linked by Shults’ consummate taste for shooting darkness, and imbuing darkness with sentience. Not only is there no electric light in the film – every indoor scene is lit by gas lamps – but most of the daytime scenes take place inside, with the characters holed up indoors, while the sparing outside sequences are heavily filtered so that it nearly always appears to be early dawn or late dusk.
Combined with Travis’ preponderance for sleepwalking, that turns darkness into the main protagonist of the film, since the “It” in the title is a bit of a McGuffin – it’s the darkness that makes “it” meaningful, precisely by shrouding it from any single or stable meaning over the course of the film. As ingenious as this is, however, I occasionally found myself wondering whether Shults had obscured more than genuinely challenged the horror tropes he was playing with. At one or two moments, I even wondered whether that pervasive darkness – or blackness – was a way of not articulating the one social possibility that remains utterly inimical to this white survivalist backdrop; namely, a completely black, unassimilated family. Still, that may be too strong a reading for what is such a consummate exercise in suspense – strongest when it focuses on the way in which horror emerges inchoately than when it tries to attribute that horror to any definite source.