I Came By is all superficial signaling, failing to build any actual substance, subtlety, or genre thrills into weightless construction.
Babak Anvari is less a horror director than he is a capital-C Concept peddler, dressing up ideas in portent and stopping short of payoff. He’s the platonic ideal of the rightfully derided trend of “elevated horror,” without enough visual splashiness to draw the attention of A24 or Neon (enter: Netflix). Even in something like the admirably intentioned Under the Shadow (2016), the actual mechanics of the rich story vie for the proper breathing room with the ideas, and are mostly choked out. That film proffered a certain, easy to root for ambition, but Anvari’s newest, I Came By, indulges the contemporaneous buzziness to the point where one questions his true motivations.
Structureless but not necessarily loose or shambolic, Anvari divides focus across a cast that prop up various entry points for “conversation”: two graffiti artists, Toby and Jay (George Mackay and Percelle Ascott, respectively), invert public tagging by spray-painting the film’s title inside the houses of the rich and oblivious. Jay drops out of the operation to pledge himself to his now-pregnant girlfriend, but Toby continues, and in breaking into the home of former judge Hector Blake (Hugh Bonneville), stumbles upon a subterranean horror that’s more second-gen UK Skins than it is Silence of the Lambs. Toby is swallowed up and disappears, and his mother (Kelly Macdonald) picks up the search.
The figure of Blake, by far the film’s most compelling element, is a concise distillation of virtue signaling centrism, made all the more damning by the basement of violence he sits atop, yet he also embodies I Came By’s most confused attitudes, conveniently caught by the police at the end, a pro-cop decision in a film that nominally assures you it’s not. In this respect, the “horror” is bloodily mismatched, a cruel, superficial fulfillment of what the material at its most pared-down demands. But I Came By is anything but pared-down, so that all this grizzly action is totally discombobulating, eschewing any and all subtlety.
However, that feigned subtlety was suspect to begin with. Characters show watching Great British Bake Off and Rick and Morty is failed shorthand for “how we live now”; at this point, in 2022, the inclusion of these references in a Netflix-backed horror film is more itself an indicator of such.
You can currently stream Babak Anvari’s I Came By on Netflix.