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Like a lot of horror movies, “It Comes at Night” opens with a death. An older gentleman, who is clearly very ill, says goodbye to his family and then gets shot in the head before his son-in-law and grandson burn his body. Did I mention they’re all wearing gas masks? From the beginning, confusion and loss reign in a film designed to keep you uncertain and emotionally raw.
Trey Edward Shults’ second film—after the remarkable breakthrough of “Krisha” last year—takes place in a world ravaged by a horrendous disease, the kind of thing that kills you in a day and has left survivors scrounging for food and trusting no one. It’s not pretty. Your body bruises, your eyes go black, you puke blood. But this is no riff on “The Walking Dead” or “28 Days Later.” It’s important that Shults’ vision of the end of the world opens not with an attack but with the kind of event that forever twists the trajectory of a young man’s life: the death of a loved one. It is a movie in which the villains are loss, grief, pain, fear, and distrust—very human emotions—and it is has no traditional undead brain-eaters. There are no zombies in the streets, boogeymen in the basement or witches in the woods—and yet it is one of the most terrifying films in years.
Shults is very careful in the way he parses out bits of information about the world in which “It Comes at Night” takes place, even though almost the entirety of the action unfolds in a boarded-up house and the woods that surround it. Father Paul (Joel Edgerton) has very strict rules that are uniformly obeyed by son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). Every window in the house is boarded up and there’s only one way out, through two locked doors, one of which has been painted bright red. If they need to go outside for any reason, they go in pairs, and they never go out at night.
Shortly after the burning of grandpa’s body, the family awakens to a sound in the “airlock room” between the two never-to-be-opened doors. Someone, or something, is in the house. After a bit of a terrifying scuffle, they discover that their invader is named Will (Christopher Abbott), and he’s just looking for water for his family, wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), who are in another abandoned house 50 miles away. They have food they can trade. No, they’re not sick. And yet there’s something about their story that doesn’t quite add up.
Working at a peak of atmospheric horror rarely seen in only a second film, Shults and his ace cinematographer Drew Daniels (who also shot “Krisha”) create captivating visuals with in-scene light sources throughout “It Comes at Night,” from the dim illumination of a lantern to the harsh glare of a flashlight on the end of a gun. Working with a fantastic production design team, they ground “It Comes at Night” in a tactile world—you can smell the wood that makes up the house and feel the grime on their skins. Even when the action opens up to the woods outdoors, they find ways to capture the natural light coming through the trees in a way that never pretentiously calls attention to itself but adds to the tension. Everything adds to the tension in “It Comes at Night,” including the stellar sound design and the playful use of changing aspect ratios, as the perspective shrinks to clarify when Travis is having a bad dream … maybe.
The performances are uniformly stellar throughout “It Comes at Night” (particularly Christopher Abbott, doing his best work since “James White”), but the film surprisingly belongs to engaging newcomer Harrison, who becomes the eyes through which we see this story. We rarely know anything he doesn’t, and it’s his 17-year-old emotions that we come to equate with our own. In a sense, the adults are almost archetypal—the strict father, the supportive mother, the engaging male stranger & the sexy female one—further defining how much “It Comes at Night” works on emotional undercurrents as much as it does traditional horror tropes. It is about that day you think your father might be wrong; the day you realize your loved ones can die; the day you flirt with a pretty girl. It just also happens to be about what could be your last day.
Shults the screenwriter can sometimes push the refusal to answer questions about this universe to a point that will break for some viewers who need a few more rules and resolutions. I get that. My fear is that too many people will go into “It Comes at Night” expecting a traditional horror movie reveal in the final act or, worse, a Shyamalan twist. I would never spoil where a film goes but would only advise that you not try to get ahead of this one. Just take it scene by scene, beat by beat, and let the characters’ emotions work on you more than trying to solve the unanswered questions of this tale.
Most of all, “It Comes at Night” is a film in which the true elements of fear come from within, not from outside. Sure, it’s not exactly a new concept—George A. Romero, John Carpenter and Stanley Kubrick have created the cinematic templates for such a thing from which Shults openly cribs without ever feeling like he’s self-consciously paying homage—but it’s remarkable to consider how much horror mileage that Shults gets out of a film with no traditional villains. In a sense, it’s a reverse horror film, one that tells us, “Sure, the outside world is scary, but it’s distrust and paranoia that will truly be your undoing. The real enemy is already inside. Now try and get some sleep.” Good luck with that last part.