‘It Comes At Night’ Isn’t The Sort Of Horror Movie You Might Be Expecting — It’s Something Much Better

We originally reviewed It Comes At Night, at the Overlook Film Festival on April 30, 2017. With the film opening wide this weekend, here’s the review again.

In the Q&A session following the surprise premiere of his second film, It Comes At Night, at the first Overlook Film Festival at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, writer/director Trey Edward Shults didn’t have a lot of answers. Or, better put, he kept quiet about any answers he might have supplied. Asked about any of several ambiguous plot points in a film filled with them, Shults largely demurred — even when asked what the “It” of the title was. This may sound like a director being precious, but it didn’t feel that way and nobody in attendance seemed annoyed. If anything, it confirmed that what they’d just seen wouldn’t be enriched by easy answers, and that it’s apt for a film so concerned with the unknown, the fear it creates, and what that fear does to those in its shadow to keep its secrets to itself.

Set in the aftermath of a devastating plague that’s seemingly reduced the population of the Earth to a handful of survivors, it’s a film steeped in darkness, both literally and otherwise. With action that takes place largely in and around a sprawling, lodge-like country home, It Comes At Night sometimes lets only a lantern or a flashlight light the frame — and then only a portion of it. It’s an apt choice for the film’s world, a place where hope comes in flickers and whose central family is introduced saying a tearful farewell to an incoherent, plague-strikcen elderly family member. After those goodbyes have been said, the family patriarch, Paul (Joel Edgerton), clad in a gas mask, takes him outside, shoots him, and burns his body. Inside, Paul’s wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their 17-year-old-son Travis (Kevin Harrison Jr.) listen and wait for Paul’s return. A family of four has become a family of three.

Yet while all signs suggest that the world’s population may have been reduced to minuscule numbers, that doesn’t mean they’re alone. One night, despite their intense security regimen, they hear a pounding and find a stranger (Christopher Abbott) has almost made into their home. In time, they’ll learn his name is Will, but only after he’s been tied up outside to confirm he isn’t carrying the plague. Even then, Paul doesn’t ask his name until after an intense interrogation — beautifully played by Abbott and Edgerton in a film with no weak performances — about where he comes from and why he attempted to break into their place, a process that ends with Paul and Sarah deciding to take in Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their toddler son.

But this doesn’t mean the family will be getting bigger. It’s as much a strategic move as an act charity. Will and Kim bring animals and food with them and their presence offers a greater defense against any future invaders. And though they soon settle into a nice routine, when Paul tells his son “you can’t trust anyone but family,” he means it. And after a series of frightening, inexplicable incidents, some already present fractures between the two families threaten to tear the home apart.

Shults made his feature debut last year with the microbudgeted Krisha, a film about an aging addict filmed in the director’s family home and featuring his actual family members. It’s a harrowing movie that makes Shults’ natural filmmaking talent clear, and one that borrowed from horror filmmaking to create a relentless sense of dread and unease. Where Krisha is a family drama that leans on horror, It Comes At Night often plays like a family drama wearing the skin of a horror movie. We learn little about the plague and only a sprinkling of information about the characters’ lives before the cataclysm. The focus falls squarely on what’s become of them since, and what they’re turning into as a result.

While their day-to-day existences are dedicated almost entirely to staying alive, their inner lives aren’t as simple. The film frequently drifts into Travis’ dreams, which reflect his difficulty accepting his grandfather’s death, his attraction to Kim and, above all, the fear of his own death. It’s in these sequences that an already unsettling film becomes almost unbearably tense.

There are only a few scares in It Comes At Night, at least not of the easy jump scare variety. But the film is almost relentlessly scary. Shults uses slow push-ins and other patient techniques to create an unsettling atmosphere that spills over into even the most mundane moments of his characters’ lives. Even a seemingly happy montage scene feels off. The world has already fallen apart. Is there any way they can keep the small corner they have left from doing the same? And if staying alive means committing unconscionable acts, is that a life worth living?

The film, like its director, offers no answers, nor does it need to. It’s an unnerving, masterful piece of horror filmmaking, creating a sense of suspense about what’s out in the woods and when and if it will come for Paul and the others. But it’s the way it explores how its characters prepare to face what’s in the dark that makes it hit home.

It Comes at Night opens June 9th. This review is from a screening at the Overlook Film Festival. At this time, a view of the film’s special effects had not been finalized.