Over the last several months, I’ve been working on curriculum for a horror literature and film adaptation class, so I’ve been revisiting a lot of film theory articles and essays on horror, and while doing so, I’ve been musing about all of the recent interesting, memorable horror movies that have come out in the last two-three years. There is the old theory that horror does well during periods of national anxiety. Stephen King talks about this in his collection of essays on the genre entitled Danse Macabre. Probably the easiest example of think of is the last great period in American horror, the 1960s/1970s, which saw the releases of Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, Halloween, The Exorcist, Jaws, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, among others. Out of all the films, I find Texas Chainsaw the most interesting, and upon re-watching it recently, I found it even more brilliant and more disturbing. I also realize now why the film is cited so much in countless essays on the genre. The low-budget film has no soundtrack, so instead, the viewer is confronted with sounds of flies buzzing, reports of violent stabbings or shootings that come through the radio in various scenes, and of course, Leatherface’s chainsaw. It is one of the most apocalyptic films I can name, and one that upends the norms for the horror genre, in that the traditional social order is not re-established by the conclusion. Sure, Sally lives, but Leatherface is not conquered, nor is his sadistic family. They all live, and the end shot is Leatherface doing a mad, frantic dance with his chainsaw beneath a blazing Texas sun. If there ever was an apt metaphor for the violence, upheaval and chaos of the 1960s/1970s, that film is it.
This brings me to the point I want to make: the American horror film genre is undergoing a renaissance right now, and it’s worth attention. Like Texas Chainsaw, Halloween, and Night of the Living Dead, many of the more interesting contemporary American horror films are indies. Specifically, I am thinking of It Follows, The Witch, Get Out, and the latest, It Comes at Night.
Like their predecessors from the 1960s and 1970s, the films also have social and political undercurrents. 2014’s It Follows deals with the perils of adolescent sex, and it can be viewed through a conservative or liberal lens, depending on your own personal political bend. 2015’s The Witch, set in Puritan New England, feels even more relevant in the era of Trump and the Women’s March because it deals with the power of female sexuality. Beyond that, however, it is one of the most atmospheric films I have seen in recent memory. This year’s Get Out is the biggest success of any of these films, and it smashed records for a black director. It deals with race in a nuanced way and addresses the hypocrisy sometimes evident in white progressives who often fashion themselves open-minded and liberal.
This brings me to the newest film of the bunch, It Comes at Night. After viewing it last night, I’m still thinking about it and frustrated by aspects of it. The film was released by A24 studios, which also released The Witch and 2016’s The Green Room, which I should include on this list, because, like the other films, it deals with the horror that comes from within/humanity. Like those other films, It Comes at Night is atmospheric and does not rely on blood and guts. The film is primarily set in a house and follows a family of three in a post-apocalyptic world. They wear gas masks, though we’re never sure why, if there is some contagion in the air. We don’t even know why society collapsed. We’re dropped in the middle of of everything. The family encounters another family of three, and by the conclusion, everyone turns on each other, raising questions about human nature and if we’d be able to pull together and survive if there was some global disaster. Parts of the film do capture the current moment in American society, especially our fear of the other, be it immigrants or people who may hold different viewpoints than us. You can even view the symbolism of the gas masks as a warning of some climate change catastrophe that is yet to come.
The film does not rely on gotch-ya scares, but instead the tone is set through creaky floorboards, sprawling shots of the forest surrounding the house, which also feels suffocating, and repeating images of a red door, which seems to symbolize the bridge between death and life. For the most part, we see everything through 17-year-old Travis’ (Kelvin Harris Jr.) eyes. We also witness his dreams, which are visceral and include boils and puss on his hands, black goo spewing from his mouth, and visions of his dead grandfather, Bud. This calls to question whether or not Travis is infected, and whether or not there is actually an illness, or if Travis’ father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), merely uses that fear to keep everyone in line.
It Comes at Night is a film that will stay with you after the credits conclude, and it is forceful in its statements about human violence. That said, I did need a little more to go on, especially regarding the contagion, if it was even real. The conclusion, meanwhile, can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I’m not going to give it away here because the film builds to it so well, beat by beat.
It Comes at Night follows a pattern, a new wave in American horror, one that doesn’t rely on blood, guts, and gore, but rather on establishing tone, mood, and atmosphere and not having a huge budget to do so. All of these films have a social and political undercurrent, and in that regard, they also mirror the last great wave of American horror cinema. There is something happening right now in the American horror film genre, and it’s worth paying attention to, especially since the future of the American political system, or the planet, for that matter, is uncertain.