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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Don’t Let Ads For ‘It Comes At Night’ Mislead You

New film serves up unconventional horror so go in with an open mind

Photo credit: A24

Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into a home to try and find water for his family in "It Comes At Night."

There is a saying that you can not judge a book by its cover. You also can not judge a film by its ad campaign. So ignore the ads for "It Comes At Night" (opening Friday at select San Diego theaters) and go in with an open mind and appreciates this dark exploration of the darkness that lies within.

Companion viewing

"It Follows" (2014)

"The Survivalist" (2015)

"The Darkness" (2016, Mexico)

There is a saying that you can't judge a book by its cover. You also can not judge a film by its ad campaign. So ignore the ads for "It Comes At Night" (opening Friday at select San Diego theaters) and go in with an open mind and appreciate this dark exploration of the darkness that lies within.

All movies — but especially horror films — have to contend with the fact that movie marketing places a huge set of expectations on them. Films like "It Follows" and "The Witch" had the heavy burden of having to live up to ad campaigns that proclaimed them as the scariest films you would ever see. No film can live up to that because it sets the bar too high.

People have to come in and discover whether or not a film is the most terrifying thing ever. When a film is promoted with such hyperbole people tend to go in with high expectations and a kind of "oh yeah, prove it" attitude that can result in them leaving the cinema disappointed.

So I wish you could go to “It Comes At Night” without knowing anything about it. The initial trailers, which end in rapid montages cut to a pulsating music track, created false expectations that left some at the preview screening frustrated and even angry that they did not get a more conventionally scary film.

Not A Conventional Horror Film

"I’m not in control of the marketing and the sad thing is that the time we’re living in, only certain things get people into the theaters and it’s really tough to get people to see movies nowadays," Shults said in a phone interview. "I wish people could just see it without seeing trailers but that’s not the world we live in. But it’s not a conventional horror movie and it was never meant to be that way. I think this movie has a lot on its mind and it’s thoughtful and just because whatever if you have preconceived notions if it’s different than that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing that can be a really great thing and I hope that people will see it who weren’t going to see it and instead of being frustrated they are excited that would be incredible."

I hope so too, because "It Comes At Night" is an exceptionally well crafted film that is about what is scary in the real world. The inspiration for the film grew out of something very personal for the filmmaker.

"It comes from very heavy stuff," Shults said. "I had a rough relationship with my biological dad, our relationship was cut off for 10 years, he had pancreatic cancer and I went to him on his death bed and he was so full of regret and did not want to let go and I was just trying to help him find peace and it was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever gone through, and a few months later I started writing and with hindsight I see it as an act of grief."

The Film Asks, 'What Would You Do To Survive?'

The pain that can occur within complex family dynamics was at the core of his previous film "Krisha." Now it gets filtered through a survivalist tale about two families forced together under one roof as the world around is plagued by a mysterious infection.

Photo credit: A24

Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) goes against his father's instructions and ventures outside at night in "It Comes At Night."

The film opens with what might be the most horrific thing imaginable — having to kill a loved one. In this case it is a daughter who must kill her infected father before he endangers the whole family with disease. But he is still conscious and aware and knows what is happening. By placing the viewer in this traumatic moment right at the start of the film, makes you think about how extreme the world of the film has become.

"For me personally, I don’t love the monster, the ghost or the zombies but I love what it does to people and the power dynamics, the fear, the paranoia or however you approach it or a family unraveling," Shults said. "I got really excited about the idea of these two families, you know these two tribes, in one house, this like microcosm of their little society and trying to coexist and seeing what happens in those circumstances and how easy and quick just like fear and the unknown and uncertainty can spread and kind of infiltrate them like a disease and tear them apart. That was kind of fascinating to me."

Darkness Is A Character

Shults uses horror film tropes about fear of the unknown and fear of the darkness to create a visual style to represent what is tearing at the families. He points out that there are no bad people in his film, just flawed, scared human beings who do not know what is happening. The "It" of the title refers to fear and fear comes at night, in the darkness when we are most vulnerable. In this world night and darkness become like a character lurking at all times on the periphery of the film.

"If you just walk through your own house with a flashlight with all the lights off, it’s scary," Shults explained. "The darkness around you is scary, if you go outside in the woods especially. That was really important. It also gets to what I think the movie is really about, it’s about the fear of the unknown so we wanted to bring that to our film grammar as well."

And he does so effectively.

The cinematography, score, and editing work in beautiful synchronicity to build tension. "It Comes at Night" is not about monsters or supernatural evil, but rather about the darkness that lurks within each of us when pushed to extremes or left unsettled by the unknown. As with "It Follows" and "The Witch," Shults' film is about dread and about contemplating what scares us. That is a far scarier thing and it requires far more craft than a film that simply makes us jump at a quick cut with a big music hit.

I hope that "It Comes At Night" (rated R for violence, disturbing images and language) finds an audience that will appreciate its craft and genuine interest in exploring the notion of fear in the real world. The cast is also superb and gives us characters that we care about, which is too often ignored in contemporary horror films.

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