Horror Double Feature: “It Comes at Night” and “Raw”

Through the vagaries of the multiplex schedule, this was a creepy movie double feature weekend.  Of the two, It Comes at Night didn’t live up to the promise of its director’s first film, but Raw succeeded as an unsettling metaphor for youthful conformity.  (It Comes at Night is currently playing in American cinemas, while Raw is now available for home viewing.)

Joel Edgerton and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., as father and son in "It Comes at Night"
Joel Edgerton and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., as father and son in “It Comes at Night”

I’ll save the best for last and start with It Comes at Night, the second feature by writer/director Trey Edward Shults.  I was bowled over by his debut, Krisha, the most insightful movie portrayal I’ve seen of the suffering (by self and inflicted upon others) of a person with Borderline Personality Disorder.  With its savvy use of close-ups, slow motion, and first person shots, it offered a heightened sensory experience that lingered long after the film ended.

Unfortunately, Shults’ sophomore effort lacks Krisha’s power.  It opens disturbingly enough, with a family of three using a wheelbarrow to cart their tumor-covered and wheezing granddad to an execution and burial pit.

Only by drips and drabs of exposition do we learn that an apocalyptic plague has overtaken the world, with this surviving threesome finding refuge in a capacious home in the woods.  For protection, Paul, Sarah, and their 17 year old son Travis have boarded up all windows and doors save one.

Late one night, Travis is awakened by banging at this blood red door.  On the other side is a lone figure, a man who claims he’s scouting for safe haven for his wife and young son.  Sarah and Travis defer to Paul, who must decide whether to trust this stranger and help him.

Where Shults and his team succeed is in creating an atmosphere of dread and tension.  The sparse circle of lantern light, revealing the cabin’s long corridors or the twisted trees overhead, leaves the viewer nervously wondering about the unseen.  Meanwhile, a perturbing, gently percussive score ratchets up the suspense at key moments.

Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), alone in the dark, in "It Comes at Night"
Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), alone in the dark, in “It Comes at Night”

And when Paul ultimately chooses to welcome the outsider, Will, and his wife and son into their sanctuary, Travis displays a creepy penchant for eavesdropping.  Moving silently through the attic corridor, Travis listens in on both his parents’ and the newcomers’ muffled conversations (along with some more intimate sounds).

Many of the best horror movies serve up metaphors for broader social concerns, such as the exclusionary religious patriarchy of last year’s The Witch or the patronizing liberal racism of this year’s Get Out.  My hunch is that Shults is utilizing Paul to symbolize the toxicity of xenophobia, as he utters repeated statements that you can’t trust anyone but family.  But any such commentary is too wispy to impart a lasting impression.

Curiously, this is nicely offset by the way that Paul and Sarah are presented without fanfare as a biracial couple, an instance of cinema reflecting a cultural trend that’s still underrepresented at the movies.  (In an odd casting coincidence, Paul is played by Joel Edgerton, the co-lead in last year’s Loving, the excellently low-key depiction of the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia.)

Lamentably, It Comes at Night fails to deliver on its tantalizing hints of suspense, building to a weak climax and denouement.  By contrast, the French language horror flick, Raw, doesn’t have this problem.  From its disquieting prologue to its fittingly whacked out final scene, it unfurls with a captivating, relentless logic.

Garance Marillier, as Justine in "Raw"
Garance Marillier, as Justine in “Raw”

Raw’s narrative centers upon Justine (Garance Marillier), a young adult leaving home for veterinary school.  Coming from a family of veterinarians and vegetarians (her older sister Alex is already studying at the same institution), the film begins with Justine’s mother making a scene at a cafeteria when a meatball accidentally turns up in her daughter’s mashed potatoes.

Justine sleepwalks through her interactions with her parents and her opening hours at school, the picture of meek conformity to family expectations.  Alarmed to discover she has a gay male roommate instead of the requested female, her unease grows as she and the other froshes are jolted from their first night’s slumber for the start of initiation week.

For most of the newcomers, shock morphs to relief, as they’re all ushered into a booze-sodden dance party.  But Justine is still clearly uncomfortable, latching onto her roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) for support, especially when her sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) rudely shuns her.

Even worse, the next day’s hazing involves the newbies ritualistically downing a nasty bit of animal flesh.  Seeking moral buttressing from Alex, who then denies being a vegetarian, Justine complies with the greatest reluctance.

But this tiny taste of meat triggers a gradual change in Justine.  Soon, she’s sneaking burgers and chicken, cooked or raw, from the dining hall and her dorm room fridge.  These cravings eventually take her to darker places.

Justine, capitulating to carnal cravings in "Raw"
Justine (Garance Marillier), capitulating to carnal cravings in “Raw”

Raw is not for the faint of heart or easily queasy.  Its vet school imagery – of horses anesthetized by Ketamine and of critter cadavers – is meant to distress the viewer, as is Justine’s increasingly odd conduct.  And the movie’s crisp digital cinematography gives the watcher nowhere to hide.

Raw’s story, a brazenly confident debut by writer/director Julie Ducournau, takes many surprising turns, both in terms of sights and plot.  But, unlike the obtuseness of It Comes at Night, the metaphors in Raw are lucid and accessible.

Justine is making the classic passage to independent adulthood by defying the dingy, repressive morals of her tightly wound parents.  The danger of this journey is that it can unhealthily consume the traveler and its bystanders.

In Raw, growing carnivorous desire represents irresistible carnal cravingBesides the graphic visuals of human and animal bodies, this is shown in the symmetry of two raves, one near the beginning and another close to the end of Ducournau’s film.

At the first rave, Justine can’t wait to bolt; by the second one, she’s dolled up in her sister’s short dress and leering greedily at the other partygoers.  The imagery of Raw left me troubled, but (pardon the pun) if you can stomach it, Raw contains plenty of food for reflection. 

It Comes at Night 2.5 out of 5 stars

Raw 3.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  Both of these films are rated R.  It Comes at Night is tamer by far, but still has some bloody imagery and strong language.  Raw is a harder R, with many graphically disturbing visuals and scenes of strong sexuality.)

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