There are plenty of problems with Tj Marine’s low-budget indie horror-thriller At Night Comes Wolves – including the deliberately off-putting conjugation error in its title – but the feature’s fatal flaw is rooted in an identity crisis. Simply put, the film plainly has no idea what story it is interested in telling. It flits erratically between subplots and timelines with a haphazardness that the gives the story the sensibility of a rambling, drunken anecdote – one delivered by an overzealous horror-film enthusiast who is trying to cram in as many tropes and subgenres as possible.
Writer-director Marine purportedly assembled the feature from fragments of at least three narrative short films, and, to be blunt, this Frankenstein origin is painfully obvious in the final product. This is not the only weakness in At Night Comes Wolves, but it might be the most frustrating, if only because it is relatively easy to discern the outlines of the superior short films that have contributed various limbs and organs to the composite form. Marine is obviously still finding his footing as a filmmaker, and, in some sense, this feels like a hungry director’s desperate attempt to package some nominally interesting but disparate genre material into one oversized container. Which might be how a melodrama about an abusive relationship winds up sharing space with a doomsday cult, a mad chemist, a survivalist couple, and a pouch of diamonds, to name just a few of the ingredients involved.
This grab-bag quality to the film’s plot makes it challenging to even summarize the underlying premise, since At Night Comes Wolves abruptly mutates relatively early in its running time – and then just keeps on mutating, until it starts to feel less like a functional film and more like a freakish chimera of improvisational scenarios. Where the film starts, however, is with Leah (Gabi Alves), an eager-to-please homemaker married to an erratic, noxious asshole named Daniel (Jacob Allen Weldy). Leah is as attentive and conciliatory as her husband is narcissistic, but when her efforts to make Daniel’s birthday something special are derailed by his predictably awful behavior, she seems to reach a long-overdue breaking point. Setting aside a brief, peculiar scene that suggests some sort of toxic sexual coercion, the upshot is that Leah resolves on the spur of the moment to flee her marriage, which is how she ends up stranded and penniless at a diner.
Enter the disarmingly friendly Mary May (Sarah Serio, easily the standout in an otherwise amateurish cast), who slides into Leah’s booth and boldly inserts herself into the woman’s troubles. With aggressively warm smiles – and a drizzle of subtly infantilizing nicknames like “honey” and “sweetie” – she convinces Leah to join her and her partner, Davey (Vladimir Noel), at their campsite in a nearby state park. Mary May speaks earnestly but vaguely of altering consciousness and the radical transformation of humanity, at which point warning klaxons will undoubtedly be going off for the viewer. (Though not, apparently, for Leah, who is, admittedly, at the end of her rope.) When the women eventually arrive at the park, Davey is fussily mixing vibrantly colored liquids and powders via what appears to be a DIY chemistry set, and he soon offers one of his supposedly restorative elixirs to Leah.
This is roughly where At Night Comes Wolves begins shifting gears – unpredictably but relentlessly – for the rest of its duration, jumping back and forth in time and sidestepping into (seemingly) unrelated subplots. However, the feature has already displayed some awkwardness in its handling of plot and tonal transitions by this point, as evidenced by its clumsy shift from the blackly comic farce of Leah’s miserable domestic life to the menacing, proto-horror vibe of her wary interactions with Mary May. (Pro tip to filmmakers: Do not use Edvard Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” to give your sex scenes an eccentric touch. Just don’t.) Marine will at times halt a scene cold to rewind and disclose some allegedly vital backstory, but the overall effect is more bewildering than revelatory, contributing to the sensation that the film is piling up plot swerves faster than it can resolve them.
By the time At Night Comes Wolves has added an amnesiac park ranger, a UFO cult self-help seminar, a psychoactive fern, a botched (off-screen) jewel heist, and a bereaved couple searching a quasi-apocalyptic suburb, it’s apparent that Marine hasn’t just bitten off more than he can chew. He’s pulling half-baked ideas out of cold storage, flinging them at the wall, and hoping that it will result in a comprehensible picture. Ostensibly, there is a thematic through-line here about the cunning resilience of patriarchal systems of control, and about how truly terrible men never reform – they just shapeshift. However, Marine never productively develops this concept, and he doesn’t present any insights beyond what could be gleaned from skimming any random article on Jezebel.
There are, to be sure, some things to admire here and there about At Night Came Wolves. The performances are generally dreadful, but Serio is so unnervingly compelling as a grinning New Age zealot, she almost balances out the rest of the cast. If one looks past the film’s ugly seams, Marine exhibits some capable filmmaking chops at the scene level. He has a talent for infusing banal situations with indefinable creepiness, in a manner that recalls the weird fiction features of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. (Ultimately, At Night Comes Wolves makes a better sizzle reel for Marine’s skills as a short-film director than it does a lucid feature-length story.) Keaton Landis’ straightforward but effective electronic score contributes significantly to the feature’s menacing mood, even if it that music is applied inconsistently.
Marine and co-editor Fargol Rose evince some strong instincts at a fine-grained level – there is a particular cut that might be the only truly flawless thing in the film – but less so in terms of connecting scenes together in a manner that orients the viewer or maintains any kind of storytelling rhythm. The whole thing feels jagged as hell, betraying the feature’s nature as an unsightly hodgepodge of formerly autonomous stories. Good films have been crafted from leftovers and castoffs, to be sure – (cough) Mulholland Drive (cough) – but Marine’s feature lacks the kind of galvanic stylistic or thematic cohesion that might have made it feel like more than the sum of its disjointed parts. In its final scenes, the film attempts to loosely tie together some (though not all) of its threads by means of a sudden swerve into an entirely new subgenre. This just comes off as a too-little, too-late act of desperation, an attempt to convince a niche audience that there was a point to the preceding hour of cacophonous braying.
At Night Comes Wolves will be available to rent from major online platforms on April 20, 2021.