Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Halloween List: It Comes at Night and The Autopsy of Jane Doe

It Comes at Night (2017)

No movie in 2017 more understands what film doesn’t have to do than It Comes at Night. It opens on a family putting down their terminally ill grandfather and burning his body in the wilderness. We don’t know what his disease is, but he is in awful shape and they are terrified of touching him.

Then we follow the family back to their boarded up house in the woods, seemingly with no one else around. They only go outside in pairs. They have strict protocols for locking and unlocking their doors. When a stranger shows up at their house in the middle of the night, they treat it with a terrified coolness, both clearly rattled that someone is out there, and forcing themselves to focus.

This is all filmed with a grainy naturalism and without a sentence of exposition. There is never a monologue starting, “After the plague wiped out America…” No one states the rules of the disease. No one even mentions if there is an “IT” that might come at night. Instead you study these people, figuring out what they’re afraid of based on how they avoid it. You can spend the first two acts figuring out the parameters of their fears, and after my second viewing, I have some hard theories about the film’s world, but I’m not sure.

That is my favorite part about It Comes at Night. In the battle of Show Vs. Tell, it shows you some, and suggests far more. The movie understands implication, leaving gaps between scenes that are puzzles to fill in. As an old die-hard fan of Blair Witch Project, the movie scratches a similar itch, giving you a rich framework in which clearly a lot is going on, while allowing the creative mind to fill much of it in.

There are many other things to love about it. It’s ultimately about two families (both multiracial) trying to overcome their fears and unite. Both families are superbly acted, from the stress-ravaged fathers to Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s sterling performance as a kid traumatized by the loss of his grandfather, who just wants to hear laughter again. The camera trusts all of these actors, giving them uncomfortably long takes, locking onto them, or flowing around them. And still it’s edited for great two-second moments, like a glimpse of the father looking around the woods and saying, “At least we’ll never run out of firewood.”

It’s disappointing to see so many people hate this movie. I missed A24’s commercials for it, which apparently promised a monster movie, and apparently disappointed a number of viewers. It's also a slow burn of a film, meant for fans of things like The Invitation and A Dark Song, and if you don't like that pace then nothing is going to turn it around for you. There may be monsters in the woods – I believe something like that is true – but it’s not a movie about that. The horror predominantly comes from the two hyper-protective families.

It’s ultimately a hybrid of Horror and Tragedy, which means it’s dark by nature. But “dark” isn’t worth a damn anymore. There are dark superhero comic books and dark children’s cartoons. Ice cream will be edgy in no time. It Comes at Night is worth watching because it’s superbly written, directed, and acted darkness.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

I am a sucker for movies in constrained settings. I dug Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which entirely plays in one apartment, and Devil, about people trapped inside an elevator. Even Buried, which never leaves Ryan Reynolds’s side as he remains trapped inside a coffin, was fascinating.

So I’m the target audience for this: a movie about two coroners in their morgue, trying to solve the mystery of a young woman who has no clear cause of death. The more they explore, the more outrageous injuries they find. Her wrists and ankles are shattered, but without so much as a bruise on her skin. There are marks on her internal organs, without any sign of surgery or wound for how anything got inside of her.

It’s like a perverse locked room, gradually suggesting this woman’s bizarre case. This is augmented with claustrophobia: they never leave this office area. They’re first fascinated, and later absolutely stuck with her. It’s not the “creepy body gets up and disappears” story I expected. The direction is exquisite, with many instances of appreciating how to make an audience sympathize with characters stuck in uncomfortable circumstances. The camera never leers at the corpse, either, despite the ample opportunities to make it a gross-out film. Even the recent IT is more graphic.

I disagree with the ending – I think there’s something much more satisfying – but the journey is a must-watch for any Horror lovers. It gets under your skin.

Up next: Two of 2017's best. Raw and The Void.


  1. The show/tell conundrum is frequently abused. Sadly we are often treated like idiots who HAVE to be told. And movies are a long way from being the only culprits...

  2. I enjoyed Jane Doe, and am actually watching It Comes at Night right now. I wasn't a fan of the original Blair Witch, but I am enjoying this movie so far. It's well done.


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