December 1, 2017
video essay

Watch: Meet the Painting that Inspired Indie Horror 'It Comes at Night'

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'It Comes at Night' uses a classic work of art for both thematic and visual inspiration.

Every hack is aware of the truism that mediocrity borrows and genius steals, mostly because that's a hacky thing to say when you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar. But, there is another, slightly less hacky truism, which is, roughly, that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Granted, something is only as hacky as the spirit behind it. What does this have to do, you ask, with Trey Edward Shults' 2017 post-apocalyptic indie chiller It Comes at Night, or MrNerdista's video about it?

A nod to art history

Too often, in a culture that has become rather amnesiac, where the internet has given all images the same weight (which is no weight, because YouTube treats a goofy commercial from the '80s with the same archival respect as a classic opera or silent film) many filmmakers, and artists in general, can fail to become exposed to the heritage of art that precedes, and lights the way backwards, into the human story, a story of joy and horror, life and death, played out in allusion, symbol, and metaphor (visual or otherwise).

In the video above, Mr. Nerdista points out how It Comes at Night does acknowledge art history. The film repeatedly displays The Triumph of Death, the classic, horrific painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted c. 1562 during a period of European history where war was a fire that raged every few years, along with the Bubonic plague, with the two bringing a dance of death to the people of Europe with the regularity of grim seasons. 

A detail from 'Triumph of Death', by Pieter Bruegel the Elder c. 1562

The painting's themes come across on screen

The symptoms of the unnamed disease in the film mirror those of the Bubonic plague (a disease in which, among other really unpleasant events, the afflicted were covered in liquid-filled sores, or buboes). These buboes were filled with a black pustule liquid, and in the film, there are glimpses of characters who "puke a black liquid" as well as suffer from other symptoms, such as gangrenous flesh.

The plague led to the idea of quarantine, and, in the minds of some thinkers, to the modern world itself, via collection of information, quantification, and separation, on a new scale. And this is a film about people obsessed with purity and the idea of quarantine. Not to mention the visual analogs between the skulls in the painting and the masks worn by, ironically, the uninfected.

 "It isn't about a reanimation of the the dead, and it certainly isn't about a haunting. We are literally watching history and humanity repeating itself."

The painting helps to set the film apart from its genre

What sets this film, which is, on its face, firmly ensconced in the post-apocalyptic genre apart, is that it is precisely not about zombies. In the words of the video, "It isn't about a reanimation of the the dead, and it certainly isn't about a haunting. We are literally watching history and humanity repeating itself," and this offers a "somber, melancholic" and timeless air to the film.

To my mind, it's an object lesson in the ways that film genre is not just based upon film genre, but rather, like stone accruing over eons, only appears so because time and density create an illusion: from the top one can only see the most recent layers. I'm not claiming that the use of Bruegel is especially profound, but it is, for a genre picture, novel, and smart, and it points to an intelligence that is rightly noted as a key to the film. 

What is art in the Internet Age?

A further point, and one I touched on before, is that YouTube (and the internet culture of eternal recall of everything) don't just, as Patton Oswalt observed, devalue the geek's expertise, they also devalue everything. Because when a dumb carpet commercial with a funny jingle is preserved forever, and is done so with the same care as the greatest works of Western culture, it quickly becomes difficult to say that one is better than the other, and soon the idea of "better" becomes lost.

Ultimately, if you pick a classic work and use that to find inspiration for your film's themes like Trey Edward Shults did in It Comes at Night, you just might make a smarter and more enduring film.      

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