This Is a Movie Review: ‘It Comes at Night’ Isn’t Just About Paranoia, It IS Paranoia

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Rating: R for Frequent Bouts of Vomiting Blood

Release Date: June 9, 2017

A common rule of thumb in horror is that which remains unseen makes for the scariest monsters. What if this guideline were stretched to its furthest limit? Could a total lack of evidence – the unseen itself as a concept – be the ultimate horror? The paranoia-fueled It Comes at Night makes a strong case for just that.

While the titular “It” remains beyond anyone’s perception, its effects are clear and visible right from the get-go. The film opens in a cabin in the woods, that staple of horror film settings, stripped down to its bare essentials. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) live with their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in a most desolate location. Their first order of business is disposing of Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton), who has succumbed to some sort of deadly contagion that appears to be looming as a threat over the entire world. How far from society has this family removed itself? Or has civilization broken down entirely such that there is no society to detach from? How far into the future does this take place, or is this present day? Does time even matter?

All this uncertainty ensures that no happy ending can come out of someone breaking into Paul and Sarah’s thoroughly boarded-up home. Will (Christopher Abbott), the intruder, somehow manages to get an invitation out of Paul to join them in the house, along with his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), but it is an uneasy peace. The two families divvy up their supplies evenly, but the issue here is not fairness, it is trust, which is impossible to establish. The specter of death in these woods is ever-present but also unknowable – anyone could be its agent, even without intending to be. A simple changing of one’s mind is cause for confrontation.

At the risk of giving too much away, I think it is important to note that It Comes at Night might not exactly be the film that its advertising makes it out to be. This is a major issue at a time when horror hounds expect visceral thrills out of something low-key like It Follows or they anticipate comprehensibility out of something inscrutable like The Witch. It Comes’ trailers give the sense that there is some monster lurking in the woods that is the source of the disease. That might be true, but that is also beside the point. It could also be a government experiment gone wrong, or it could be a nameless, faceless apocalypse-level pandemic. But the prime monster in this slice of the world is paranoia. When the structure of one’s reality breaks apart irreversibly, there is no such thing as security or sanity.

It Comes at Night is Recommended If You Like: The Thing, The Others, The Blair Witch Project

Grade: 4 out of 5 Infections

This Is a Movie Review: Sequel-Prequel ‘Alien: Covenant’ Follows the ‘Prometheus’ Template and Adds a Few Bizarre Details of Its Own

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for the Usual Chest-Bursting Shenanigans

Release Date: May 19, 2017

When horror movies are successful enough to merit sequels, the follow-ups can either repeat the same scares or expand the mythology. They usually do both, with the latter generally growing in prominence as the series drags on, with the diminishing returns on the former become clearer and clearer. (They can also try to summon entirely new scares, but that is one of the most difficult tasks in all of moviemaking.) Ridley Scott’s Alien is pure horror, despite its sci-fi setting. When other directors took over for the first batch of sequels, their genres may have tended more towards action, but the mythology certainly blew out as well, what with cloning Ripley and hurtling hundreds of year into the future.

Now that Scott has taken back the reins, he has apparently decided that if crazy ideas are going to be the name of the day, he might as well underpin the franchise with his own peculiar philosophizing. Because otherwise, this would just be a rehash of intrepid spacefarers treading too far on the edge and getting ripped apart by lethally invasive extraterrestrials. That approach is not necessarily terrible, and Alien: Covenant does not avoid it entirely. Chest-bursting can no longer be as iconic as it was the first time, but it still packs a sickening kick, and there are other body parts to slice off and wear away with acid blood. And there are also some larger-scale action sequences, demonstrating Scott’s still vibrant eye for scale and knack for properly calibrating tension.

But Covenant truly excels when it gets weird. It bridges the gap, both temporally and thematically, between the original Alien and 2012 prequel Prometheus. The latter film started to answer the question of what made the original attack on the Nostromo possible, a question that nobody really ever asked. Covenant continues to answer the question, and while it is still unnecessary, the backstory on display is fascinating enough to justify itself.

The actors playing the human crew of the Covenant fulfill their duties, but it is android Michael Fassbender who is pulling the strings. Prometheus and Covenant are explicitly about creation myths and the limits of human ambition, and these fundamental themes of existence are represented and mercilessly toyed with by humanoid beings created by humans. Certain revelations come out squarely tsk-tsking against hubris, while other moments are more impenetrable with their messages. But that is no criticism. Traversing across the universe should be stunning, humbling, and mysterious, perhaps even to the point of incomprehensibility. What is the purpose, for example, of Fassbender teaching himself to play the flute? I cannot genuinely say that I know, except that it makes Alien: Covenant unforgettable.

Alien: Covenant is Recommended If You Like: Prometheus But Wish It Had Been Better, Even If You Thought It Was Good

Grade: 4 out of 5 Fingers