OnScreen Review: 'It Comes At Night"

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Most horror movies tend to outperform their box office predictions in their opening weekend. People, particularly teens, love to go to the movies and be scared. It seems like every year, though, there is one horror movie that garners critical acclaim yet fails to connect with the wider audience because it is not a straightforward slasher or monster flick with cheap scares. Typically, these are indie horrors, with most recent being It Follows, The Witch, and The Babadook. This year, that film is clearly It Comes at Night. The follow-up film to director Trey Edward Shults’ 2016 family drama (though a horror in its own way), Krisha, is an unconventional horror that has a few thrills but is mostly built on atmosphere and interpersonal tension.

The film is set in post-apocalyptic world of some kind. What exactly has happened is never made clear, but some contagion has spread causing death and disease in its wake. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live in a secluded house deep within the forest. After saying goodbye to Sarah’s father, who had become infected, their isolation is interrupted by the arrival of an intruder named Will (Christopher Abbott) who is scavenging for supplies for his family: his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew. With some reluctance, Paul agrees to let them Will and his family live with them so long as they abide by the house rules he lays out, the most important being to always keep the only entrance locked and that goes outside at night.

Shults is a young director who spent some time working for Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols before doing Krisha. His relationship with Nichols was how he managed to get Edgerton for this film. The influence of these two directors is clear on Shults, both in what he does and what he doesn’t do. He has said in various interviews he learned to never make a movie how Malick makes them, but the use of natural light for the filming of this movie stands out as a Malick thread. There is a beautiful shot where Edgerton’s Paul has to go outside at night to make sure there is no one else around after they catch an intruder. Armed with a shotgun with a flashlight attached to the end of it, he slowly scans the tree line, the light from his flashlight hauntingly moving between the branches, casting shadows and peering into the inky darkness.

The setup of the house is another terrific aspect of the feel of this movie. The ominous big, red door that is the only entrance to the building is bolted shut, painted red as if to scream “Stop!” It is also at the end of a long hallway. In some ways, it reminded me of a rustic version of an airlock on a space ship, keeping the inhabitants safe from what is outside. Adding to this sense is that they so often are shown wearing gas masks in order to avoid exposure.

Exposure to what is never fully explained, which is frustrating at times, but this film is not about the disease outside but the slow deterioration of the group dynamic inside the house. So much of this uneasy living situation is built on trust, and any slight wobble in that trust can quickly cause everything to collapse. When things begin to spiral, it quickly breaks down into a form of tribalism; even though they are all people, they are still two families that are tenuously together for convenience.

As I said, the film is largely atmospheric, with most of the scariest moments being found in a few nightmares that Travis has after experiencing the death of his grandfather and having a general fear of the unknown that is lurking in the outside world due to this disease. With only one exception, we don’t see any characters outside of these two families. And outside of one instance where their dog chases after something in the woods, the potential threat of this disease remains on the margins, even as it is at the forefront of every character’s mind to protect their family from it.

There’s also a ton of ambiguity that begins the spiraling of events in the house, and the film never provides hints and strong suggestions at what caused things to happen, but never gives firm answers. This could easily turn people off to the film; I found it mostly effective but I could have used a bit more substance. Shults builds the film to an emotional gut punch of an ending, with a John Carpenter classic being the clear inspiration for the closing shot of the film even though it is not meant to evoke the same response from the audience.

Shults has said that the film came from dealing with the death of his father from cancer and his processing of his grief from that; the opening scene saying goodbye to the grandfather reflects this and the Shults grew the story from there. It could easily be argued that his previosu film, Krisha, is more of a (domestic) horror movie than It Comes at Night, this sophomore effort is still achieves much  

of what it sets out to do. It’s more unconventional and has fewer moments that truly scare as a horror film than The Babadook, The Witch, or It Follows, but it establishes a tone and an atmosphere in a tightly contained environment and gives just enough shading along the margins for the external threat to be lingering most of the time and imposing in a few moments.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars