I Came By (UK, 2022)
Regular listeners of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias may remember that I picked Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow as my favourite horror film of the 2010s. Its combination of djinn legends and the more earthly horrors of life in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War was unique.
From there, Anvari went on to adapt Nathan Ballingrud’s grimy, uncomfortable novella The Visible Filth into 2019’s Wounds. The New Orleans setting of Wounds felt so distant from Under the Shadow that only its nightmarish tone made it recognisable as the work of the same director.
When I learnt that Anvari’s new film had been released just in time for this year’s October Horror Movie Challenge, it went straight on the list. As Anvari has lived in the UK for most of his life, I wanted to see how London fared as a setting in his hands. So how does I Came By measure up to his earlier work?
Jay and Toby are graffiti artists with a social conscience. They break into the homes of the rich and powerful across London, spray-painting “I Came By” on their walls. This partnership falls apart when Jay’s partner, Naz, becomes pregnant and Jay decides he needs to be a responsible father.
This leaves Toby socially isolated, but still driven. While he does live with his mother, Lizzie, a therapist, their relationship is strained at best. Toby hides his double life from her, as he does from the rest of the world.
Before packing in his criminal exploits, Jay had scoped out one last job. The target was to be a retired judge named Hector Blake. While Blake’s politics appear progressive, Toby believes him to be the worst kind of hypocrite. Despite Jay’s concerns that breaking in alone would be too dangerous, Toby decides to take the chance. Before he has the chance to paint anything, Toby stumbles upon a hidden room in Blake’s basement, holding a terrible secret.
No matter how much evidence is presented to the authorities, Blake proves untouchable. His contacts and upper-class respectability put him beyond suspicion. Even as Blake commits the most brutal crimes, Toby and those he loves find themselves powerless to stop him. Can they even survive such a powerful enemy, let alone bring him to justice?
One thing I particularly like about Anvari’s films is the economy of storytelling. He rarely employs exposition, drawing instead on his facility for conveying information visually. In some directors’ hands, this might require the audience to work to follow the narrative. Anvari just makes it seem effortless.
At its core, I Came By is the story of a predator hiding in plain sight, protected by powerful friends. Especially given the British setting, it’s hard not to see Jimmy Savile’s shadow hanging over it all. While Hector Blake is completely different in appearance, behaviour and even class, his brazen confidence is pure Savile.
Toby and Jay represent an unusual form of activism. Their actions may be little more than angry screams at the inequities of modern British life, but what they do is raw and heartfelt. No matter how illegal and intrusive their activities, it is hard not to admire them.
Ultimately, I Came By is a film about generational trauma. Almost every character in the film is shaped by broken relationships between parents and children. The difference between them lies in what they do with that trauma. The film reminds us that we can be better than the lives we were born into. Or profoundly worse.
It’s particularly nice to see the avuncular Hugh Bonneville playing against type as the sinister Hector Blake. He makes a pleasingly creepy predator, hiding behind a mask of well-mannered banality. The matter-of-fact manner in which he does the most terrible things is especially horrific.
On the other hand, as someone from the Trainspotting generation, it is deeply depressing to see Kelly MacDonald playing a character with an adult son. Time is as merciless as Hector Blake.
When I published my OHMC list last month, a couple of people asked whether I Came By is actually a horror film. Honestly, after watching it, I don’t know. It is probably more of a thriller, but one dark enough to scratch the horror itch. There’s certainly some blood and a few brutal murders, but the horror largely comes from the sheer bleakness of the situation. The film also has a few gratuitous jump scares, but those are hardly the defining trait of the genre.
I Came By is a much more complex film than it first appears to be. Initially, it seems to follow a story we’ve seen in any number of films: someone breaks into the wrong house and comes face-to-face with a human monster. Here, however, the shifting perspectives and changes in protagonist throughout keep things unexpected and unsettling.
Sadly, this is somewhat undermined by a predictable ending. It’s not that the resolution is weak or unsatisfying, just that it feels so inevitable all we can do is nod along with it.
I’m not sure I Came By quite lives up to Babak Anvari’s first two films. Then again, they both set an extremely high bar. Regardless, it is gripping, dark and very well constructed. And whether or not you’d call it a horror film, I’d be surprised if one or two scenes don’t find their way into your nightmares.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker/The Mutations (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!