Directed and Written by: Trey Edward Shults
Horror has been having a mini-renaissance in the past few years, with new filmmakers willing to subvert tropes and avoid the more tired conventions of the genre. It Comes at Night is the latest horror offering, and a welcome addition. The film, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, avoids the masked killers and gore, aiming for an atmospheric and character-driven drama. The result is not only captivating, it’s one of the most unsettling films in recent years.
Shults does not give the audience much to go on in terms of plot—the most we know is that there is a deadly virus going around, and small family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is trying to survive in their remote woodland home. Their routine is disrupted when they invite a family of survivors to join them. Despite initial harmony, there’s a growing suspicion of who is honest and who is sick. The film moves with a tension that doesn’t break until a devastating end.
As the film has no physical monster or giant cataclysm, it relies on its actors, who are up to the task. Joel Edgerton carries the film as Paul, a father, husband, and former teacher who is trying to keep his family safe in an unsure environment. Edgerton shows the cautious and gentle side that he showed in Loving, but can still turn on a dime into anger and fear. Ejogo is a quiet force as Sarah, Paul’s wife. The character first appears to be submissive and unable to handle the events, but as the film goes on, she shows her own sense of practical skills and drive. She is a partner to Paul in protecting their home. If there is a flaw in the film, it’s that Sarah was not featured more.
Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough are serviceable as the survivors, but are overshadowed by Edgerton and Ejogo. However, the film’s most interesting performance comes from Kelvin Harrison Jr. Playing Travis, Paul and Sarah’s son, Harrison brings an enigmatic quality to his role. Travis is the observer, the closest to an audience surrogate. He is also plagued with disturbing visions. He spends much of the film watching, as if he is aware of something that the rest of the characters don’t know about, and he, along with the audience, dreads what it may be.
The atmospheric dread and tension is It Comes at Night’s biggest strength. Some of that is due to Shults’ storytelling decisions—the audience never sees what is happening outside the woods, so there is a sense is distrust when it comes to the survivors, and if they are telling the truth. When Edgerton catches one of them in a lie, the tension grows and never subsides—it seems normal to suspect danger around every corner. The music helps as well. Brian McOmber’s score provides a sense of foreboding without being overbearing.
Still, the film’s best asset is the house, where a majority of the film is set. There are long hallways with red doors that shouldn’t be opened. Any unusual sound is a reason to grab a weapon—it’s a haunted house with no ghosts, only frightened inhabitants. For night scenes, Shults forgoes lighting the entire shot, using lanterns as the only source of light. The effect is ominous—the audience only sees what the character can see—the rest is unseen, any potential danger hidden in the dark.
It Comes at Night does cover familiar territory for horror—fear of death (via disease), fear of the unknown, and fear of desperate situations where survival isn’t guaranteed. Yet, this film goes a step further and darker. It explores the idea that fighting for survival is futile, that no matter how much and how extreme the characters act to protect themselves, it is for naught. Whatever is coming at night, it will come for everyone. Hopelessness and futility are rarely explored in American fiction, and when they are, there are often signs of optimism (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example).
The end of It Comes at Night is both haunting and refreshing. It fits right in with more dramatic, cerebral, and uncompromising modern horror like Get Out, The Babadook, and The Witch.