It has been an unusually good year for horror films, though it shouldn’t surprise those who have been keeping up with the genre’s top tier over the past few years. Gems like “Don’t Breathe,” “The Witch,” and “Hush” (all of which came out last year) announced a promising rebirth for horror, getting back to the basics to deliver visions of terror that dial back on cheap jump scares and up the dread, unease, and disturbing imagery. The results of this new mentality from this year have been stellar. Ridley Scott, who is as brilliantly old school as filmmakers get, showed us the horror of creation in “Alien: Covenant.” Jordan Peele took everything a giant leap forward by depicting the horror of racism in “Get Out.” Now we have “It Comes At Night,” the sophomore effort from Trey Edward Shults, which takes the audience on a far more introspective journey. Here we have the horror of fear itself, a deeply upsetting look at how the depravity and tragedy it entails outweigh the effects of any external threat.
Taking shelter in a boarded-up house in the woods from an unexplained viral epidemic, Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), rely on a strict set of rules to stay alive, key of which is to wear gas masks outside, and to never go out at night. After Sarah’s father dies from the infection, another family of three - Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and boy Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) - desperately come knocking on the red door that separates Paul and his family from the outside world. Paul is immediately weary of their intentions, but he eventually allows them to share his home and resources in the hopes of strengthening both families. However, since living in this world brews unceasing paranoia, distrust grows between them, forcing Paul to take extreme measures to protect his loved ones, while Travis struggles to comprehend the never-ending nightmare he lives in.
What makes “It Comes At Night” so refreshing is how opposite its intentions are compared to other films in the post-apocalyptic subgenre. The small cast and limited setting are obvious indicators, but it is how little we see that sets the film apart from the rest. The most ominous shots, photographed by Drew Daniels, feature a single light source illuminating small fractions of a blackened space. Brian McOmber’s haunting string-based score, which has echoes of Gustavo Santaolalla’s work in “The Last of Us,” fills this void as an extension of the characters’ emotions, namely Travis, who spends night after night within dreams that further his fears. This not only enhances the horror aspect, but the very questions and themes that the film raises.
Thematically, Shults’s film falls in line with his debut feature, “Krisha,” which was shot on a shoe-string budget and starred his own (nonprofessional) family. Both take place in small settings, heighten intensity without direct exposition, and feature families driven by anxiety and fearful impulse. But whereas “Krisha” maintains an electricity from beginning to end, “It Comes At Night” aims for a slow-burn approach. This method, coupled with the post-apocalyptic setting, sets expectations that fall in line with what Paul’s family is prepared for. Those who have seen “The Walking Dead” will probably know how it plays out, but nothing can prepare them for what ultimately transpires. Shults stages a traumatizing climax that undoes any and all expectations, as we and the characters realize what’s really at stake. This is what “The Walking Dead” should strive to be (now more than ever).
As with “Krisha,” Shults wrings out compelling performances across the board. Edgerton is commanding and vulnerable. One gets the sense that, while he is somewhat reluctant to carry out certain deeds, he is more than willing to do what he believes is right, which often calls his morality into question. Harrison is tasked with communicating a great deal through nothing but his face. To say that he succeeds and then some is an understatement. Abbott is wonderfully understated, toying with our assumptions as to whether or not he’s a good guy trying his best to keep his family safe. When tensions rise, everyone on screen is a marvel to watch, even though their actions prove more terrifying than what may or may not be beyond that red door. Shults is now two for two, a more-than-welcome voice in the genre and in A24’s increasing pantheon of cinematic treasures. This is one of the best films of the summer.