The traditional horror in It Comes at Night exists at the film’s beginning and end, in swift segments bookending a story that builds at an otherwise slow, self-assured pace without inducing averted eyes, chomped fingernails, or white knuckles. It would be inaccurate to describe the film as uneventful in between its grotesque, morbid punctuation marks; it’s simply that the “what” of It Comes at Night isn’t as important as “how.” The plot is mostly predictable, especially if you consider the argument the film is making about the toxicity of human nature when introduced to fear and desperation. Still, the storytelling, however straightforward, is couched in an atmosphere of anxiety that refuses to relent until the credits roll.
It Comes at Night is similar, in many respects, to a slew of recent horror movies that enjoyed substantial returns on minute financial investments. The Babadook, It Follows, and especially The Witch (a fellow A24 Production) are called quickly to mind when watching Trey Edward Shults’ claustrophobic thriller about the horrors that lurk in the woods. Like those films, this is the product of a small budget and considerable directorial creative control; it traffics in the horror of the off-screen and unseen rather than the structured jump scares and gratuitous blood spurts of major horror productions. Like those similar films, its defining achievement is a command of mood that maintains unremitting dread until the very end.
Increasing and maintaining that dread is the film’s primary function, more so than weaving a trackable narrative or developing its characters. Its imagery – faces obscured by gas masks, doors locked with great care, dense forest that limits visibility – draws the mind implicitly to the threat in the periphery, instead of the people and the events on the screen. The color palette is muted but naturalistic: deep greens and browns crowd the screen as scenes unfold either in the dense, isolated wilderness or a shadowy, labyrinthine cabin. Remarkably, It Comes at Night concludes without ever defining the looming threat. It’s clear that there has been a cataclysm, and it’s clear that the world as it exists now has moved on. Life is under assault from a vicious disease (it’s never fully obvious whether this disease is airborne or contracted only through contact) and vital supplies are dwindling. A family of four –including a Grandfather, Mother, Father, and Son – live in a house-turned-fortress in the wilderness, in a state of constant readiness that borders on, and eventually morphs into, toxic paranoia.
The film opens with a black screen and a soundtrack of labored breathing that eventually feels interminable, but isn’t: when the blackout is lifted, disturbing images appear. The family’s patriarch is rapidly deteriorating, afflicted by some unnamed disease that will make cremation a necessity once he is mercifully killed by his son-in-law. In these moments – and in similar shots later in the film – It Comes at Night approaches the skin-crawling grotesquerie of big-budget horror: the man’s pupils turn black and bleed into the whites of his eyes while his skin is covered in boils that seep and swell; his mouth becomes a cavity without any function beside the aforementioned wheezing and dispensation of black slime. This brief period of conventional horror is used by the film to establish the stakes in the story that follows – you never know exactly what’s out there, but you never forget what it can do.
The central conceit is simple enough: when another family – mother, daughter, young son – finds refuge at the first’s wilderness hideout, the two groups struggle to maintain a balance between smart vigilance and trusting coexistence. The film makes an inspired decision here, framing the narrative through the perspective of Travis, the first family’s seventeen year-old son. Trailers for It Comes at Night suggest that the story belongs to Paul (Joel Edgerton), Travis’ father, but the audience mostly views the events through the innocent and traumatized eyes of Travis, rendering Paul’s domineering paranoia suffocating and disturbing instead of well-intentioned and protective. Furthermore, It Comes at Night only comes close to delivering real fright in intermittent dream sequences that belong to Travis, flashbacks of terrible trauma and what appear to be visions of a horrible future.
Such a horrible future does indeed unfold in the film, as paranoia gives way to tragedy. There is no happy ending here, and the inevitability of the grim conclusion is probably related to the obviousness of the film’s message. It doesn’t particularly break new ground to wonder if the human condition is a type of sickness; in fact, It Comes at Night doesn’t break any new ground to speak of, and falls just short of the impact made by other, more ambitious independent horror films. The filmmaking is capable and understated, but with few promising flashes of ambition. It’s well acted, but doesn’t give its characters much to do beside suspiciously whispering or desperately begging. It’s scary, but just short of truly terrifying, disturbing, or otherwise moving. It’s a good, worthwhile film by a young director who may one day make a great one.