Back in February, A24 dropped the first bloodcurdling trailer for their horror movie, It Comes At Night. The ensuing 90-second tease was so bloodcurdling that it’s rumoured to have emptied every weak bladder from Toledo to Tibet. With the film’s early June release, genre movie lovers anticipated another summer movie fright-fest in the vein of The Sixth Sense and The Conjuring. Whether or not the film delivered on its early promise, however, is up for debate.
So What Went Wrong?
It Comes at Night failed to meet its modest box office expectations. Backed by almighty A24 (Ex Machina, Moonlight) and positive buzz from critics, the film earned $5,988,370 during its opening weekend (early forecasts pegged it for $10 million). The film didn’t just underperform – it turned off the crowds that actually showed up, only managing a D Cinemascore and a 43% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. By comparison, the universally-panned flaming mess called The Mummy has a B- Cinemascore.
While audiences anticipated a movie in line with The Sixth Sense and The Conjuring, It Comes at Night has more in common with The Babadook and The Witch, two films which rely on atmosphere rather than gore, jump scares, and recognizable actors. It Comes at Night‘s deliberate pacing subtly demands that viewers pay attention to the performances, symbolism, and narrative subtext or get left behind. Moviegoers went to the theatre in search of thrills and kills, and instead received a heady dose of existential crisis.
Horror films unsettle us by tapping into our fight or flight instincts, then letting us sit there and stew in our unease. Scary movies manipulate our deepest and most primal instincts, such as fear of the dark, isolation, and predators with sharp teeth. On a surface level, however, scary movies hook us with characters and plot. Ask someone what makes The Exorcist scary and they’ll tell you that it’s a demonically possessed child, but what truly affected them wasn’t a head-twirling little hell-spawn – it’s an internal fear of losing control of their own body, or watching someone they love battle illness.
It Comes at Night wallops the audience with the same palpable sense of dread as a film like The Exorcist without offering a supernatural boogeyman to embody their subconscious fears. Instead, writer/director Trey Edward Shults explores themes of tribalism, xenophobia, and mortality through the lens of family dynamics. If you’ve seen Shults’ previous film, Krisha, you know that in his hands, nothing is more anxiety-inducing than being surrounded by loved ones.
Regardless of how much you enjoy the first 90% of a movie, weak or confusing endings taint the experience and create a negative overall impression. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village is a legitimately creepy film that siphons off its well-earned tension and dread through a shitty twist at the end. It Comes at Night has a thematically fitting climax followed by a restrained closing moment, and although the climax delivers a devastating blow intellectually, on a purely superficial level the story ends with a whimper. If you’re not fully dialed-in to what’s going on below It Comes at Night‘s surface, you won’t find the ending satisfying.
More Arthouse Than Haunted House
Do we punish It Comes at Night for its marketing push, or should we judge the film on its own merits? In the coming years, all the reviews, misleading marketing, and audience backlash won’t matter as people discover the film on whatever streaming platform beams movies straight into their living rooms. Stripped of the hype and devoid of expectation, It Comes at Night remains a great film that will stand the test of time.
This past weekend, Transformers: The Last Knight took up residence in every multiplex across the North America. The franchise has become the symbol of Hollywood spectacle-porn; millions of people flock to the movies for Transformers‘ robot-on-robot action, then forget the film once they walk out of the theatre. The worst response to art is indifference, and Shults displays a gift for getting his audience all wound up, even when they can’t put a finger on exactly why. Despite what the ads lead moviegoers to believe, Shults crafted 91-minutes of blockbuster season counter-programming. It Comes at Night‘s nuanced performances, poignant themes, and haunting ending makes it the perfect summer anti-popcorn flick.