I’ve never been to a “legitimate” haunted house, but the closest I’ve ever felt to what I imagine the experience is like is when I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Even almost 80 years since the Frank family, and hundreds of thousands of other Jewish and other families were forced into hiding, the horror of that period still oppresses that house. More than reading her diary, being in that house forces you to experience just a fraction of what living it might feel like. Being in that house forces you to ask if you could do it: Could you live here not knowing how long it would be until you could safely go outside again. Could you live here knowing that your survival depended entirely on people with every incentive in the world to sell you out? Could you live here knowing that the world may very well be ending right outside that door?
It Comes at Night is the only movie I’ve seen that, purposefully or not, replicates the type of horror that the Anne Frank House confronts you with. It’s being advertised as a horror film, and, that’s not completely wrong, but it’s also far from what you might expect going into a horror film.
It Comes at Night takes place shortly after the end of the world. A highly contagious disease is spreading and has just taken Travis’ (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) grandfather, leaving just himself; his mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo); and father, Paul (Joel Edgerton) alone in their house in the middle of the woods. That is until their house is broken into by Will (Christopher Abbott), a man just looking to provide for his own wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and son. They decide to consolidate their resources by moving in together, and now have to learn to live together knowing the end of the world is just outside their door.
It Comes at Night is oppressive. It’s claustrophobic. It makes you suspicious and frightened by everything, no matter how benign it is. You start looking for reasons to mistrust the other characters; paranoia around desperate people is more reasonable than not, and even during calm moments, the movie makes you aware that anyone could be harboring the cause of your or your family’s doom. With the end of the world right there, threatening to burst in at any moment, you can’t help it. The tension builds like a pressure cooker until something has to explode to release it.
But more than just a general feeling of oppression and tension, there are more particular details of It Comes at Night that remind me specifically of Anne Frank’s story. Most obviously is the harboring of a strange family, but adding to that is the threat of that family carrying disease. The disease in the movie works two-fold in this way; first as a literal infection – penicillin only just started to be used in the early 1940’s; and the idea of the Jewish disease perpetuated by Nazi propaganda. These people you harbor are diseased, untrustworthy, and will weaken you. The propaganda worked on entire nations, and its message is clearly felt by the family.
And then there’s a small sweet scene of sexual curiosity. Putting the continued debate of Frank’s own sexuality aside, the single scene engenders the question of what it means to experience sexuality in an inherently sexless environment. It butts the banality of an almost universal aspect of the human condition uncomfortably against an utterly inhuman environment.
And isn’t that really the movie in a nutshell? Not the banality of evil, but how merciless oppression convinces us of evil in the banal. It Comes at Night depicts the horror of what people must necessarily become to survive inhuman conditions, and how frightening it is to become that.