A mix of artful filmmaking and white knuckle scares.
Amidst the bloat and blahs of the summer movie season comes a quiet little horror movie that packs a wallop. It Comes at Night doesn’t resort to cheap jump scares or heavy clichés that most middle of the road fright flicks tend to rely on. It’s a psychological horror where the really scary shit is the places your mind goes to when it’s late, dark, and you’re all alone. Even if the paranoia turns out to be deserved and there is a threat from the outside trying to kill you, it’s the fear in your mind that rips you apart most viciously. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s keen ear for emotional truth makes It Comes at Night a lasting experience that will put roots down in the creepy corners of your brain.
From the very onset we’re thrown into the middle of trouble. The film’s first scenes concern an old man who has been infected with a lethal virus that could kill the ones he loves. This sickness is a veritable death sentence without a cure, and the man’s daughter Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), son-in-law Paul (Joel Edgerton), and grandson Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) can do nothing but put him out of his misery before what he’s got catches onto them. Paul shoots him, and his body is burned in a pit doused in a heavy layer of gasoline. It Comes at Night doesn’t give you any exposition, but you’re right there with our core trio, in the thick of something truly disturbing.
The family lives in a house in the woods with windows boarded up and doors locked at all times. Another survivor, Will (played by Christopher Abbott), tries to break in during the middle of the night. Will and his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) are trying to escape the grasp of the sickness. After a heavy vetting by Paul, this new clan is welcomed into this woodland safe haven and they all begin to work together to function as a tiny new society of lost survivors of a global pandemic. But when the sun sets and the rooms become pitch black, the hearts of darkness take over and throw the house into disarray.
This isn’t a film built on any grand reveals or answers to questions it isn’t really interested in providing. There’s a plague that’s killed millions of people, and the ones fortunate enough to escape death’s grasp are pushed to their physical and emotional limits; that’s really the setup for the movie as a whole. It’s to the great credit of Shults that we’re given six unique individuals to connect with. The stakes become higher and higher the longer we’re intimate with them, letting their personalities become real inside us. Even if there is a physical being threatening their safety, the screenplay is just indifferent to it. These people could be up against anything and we’d still want to root for them. What’s interesting is when fear takes hold of them and makes them behave in ways they maybe didn’t previously believe they were capable of.
Distrust builds, aggression breaks out, and people get hurt. Paul and Will tussle for alpha male supremacy while the women and children rouse their own suspicions and plot their own secretive actions. The dynamite cinematography and score by Drew Daniels and Brian McOmber, respectively, work together to ratchet up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. Every performance is committed and devastatingly vulnerable. The minimal production design amps up the claustrophobia to help breed even more fear and the bloody/gory moments are executed in painfully believable moments. The movie takes the knife tapping against your skull and twists it into your heart.
If you’re willing to step into the darkness and confront the unknown threats, It Comes at Night will reward you in spades. The movie itself is a tougher sell to impatient audiences looking for “scares” derived from massive VFX setpieces and cheap thrills punctuated by overbearing musical cues (see – or, rather, don’t see – The Mummy for an example of a “scary movie” done wrong). It Comes at Night isn’t a movie that “makes you think”, but it does come with a preexisting respect of audiences’ intelligence and sophistication. Hands aren’t held here.
If you’d rather have an A-list megastar running away from CGI beasts and always escaping by the skin of his or her teeth, then It Comes at Night is not going to float your boat. It isn’t your average horror movie, but isn’t the abnormal even more exciting because you are even less sure of what to expect? Still, It Comes at Night reveals a horror that’s all too real: Sometimes the duality of man is more dangerous than any stock horror tropes that go bump in the night.
Dan is a lifelong movie geek who's been a projectionist, critic, director, (accidental) actor, and writer in the industry since E.T. phoned home. He currently lives in Vancouver and doesn’t get outside nearly as much as he should.