When the reviews said It Comes at Night was the next great horror film, I was agog with excitement, and it had to do with the studio. I don’t usually get excited seeing a studio name, but for A24 Films I make an exception. You see, whereas Blumhouse Productions does a volume business with horror movies and occasionally turns out something great like Get Out, A24 takes a more artisanal approach to the genre. The studio sacrifices quantity for quality, an approach that has allowed it to put out highly unusual and quite scary genre entries like Under the Skin, The Witch, and Green Room. The current movie isn’t quite in that company, but it does offer up much more food for thought than the average Blumhouse offering.
The film takes place in a secluded cabin in the woods where Paul (Joel Edgerton) lives with his wife Sarah (the suddenly ubiquitous Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have taken refuge from an airborne contagion that acts much like speeded-up Ebola, causing its victims to break out in sores and start bleeding from every orifice. A nearby city has already been hit, but as the movie begins, Sarah’s father (David Pendleton) has contracted the disease out in the country, and Paul and Travis have to take him out, shoot him, and burn his corpse. The family dynamic is upset when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) tries to break into the house to get water for his family. After much precautions to determine that Will and his wife Kim and young son (Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner) aren’t infected, Paul’s family decides to take them in on the logic that Will’s family can provide them with livestock and help defend the place. Alas, the relationships start to fray as Travis is attracted to Kim, Will is caught in an untruth about his family that might be a slip of the tongue, and Travis’ beloved dog charges off into the woods after an unseen threat and vanishes.
This is the second feature film by Trey Edward Shults, the Texas filmmaker who made an impressive debut with his high-intensity 2015 family-reunion drama Krisha. It’s actually less of a horror film than a psychological thriller, as the real monster isn’t the pathogen but the paranoia that seeps into both families when they’re surrounded by enemies both invisible and visible, like the two men who try to shoot Paul and Will when they go out in Paul’s truck. Shults has an eye for the disturbing visual detail like the red door inside Paul’s house that leads to an improvised airlock protecting the house from the outside, or the poster of Pieter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” that Travis has up in his room. The title of It Comes at Night refers not to any supernatural villain but rather to the feverish nightmares that keep Travis from sleeping after he witnesses his grandfather’s euthanization/execution. Shults knows how to make these scarring, particularly a sex fantasy that Travis has about Kim that turns horrific.
The movie does lack a standout performance that it can coalesce around, and the events don’t unfold with the same ruthless inevitability of similar movies like The Witch and 10 Cloverfield Lane. As a statement about how fear can make monsters of us all, this doesn’t have quite the impact that Shults is going for. Yet the movie does have its moments of pure horror, as during the violent climactic confrontation between the families and the karmic payback that awaits the survivors of it. It Comes at Night evokes a world where the simple act of taking a child’s hand can wind up costing you your life and the impossibility of trusting anyone in such a world. It’s chilling in its implications. Were it as chilling an experience, this would be a truly great horror film.
It Comes at Night
Starring Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Rated R.