I’ll just start this off with a variation of the spoiler alert. This is a mean movie. This is not a movie to go to if you are feeling the full weight of the world and utter despair with humanity. This will not help you. This is certainly not a movie to go to if you think horror films are all chock-full of knives, boobs, and masked killers. Likewise, if you cringe at the thought of “art horror” (see The Witch), you should just go ahead and head on over to that great exploration of “darkness” known as The Mummy (2017).
It Comes at Night is an earnest variation of the “post-apocalyptic cabin in the woods” genre, which can trace its lineage at least as far back as Night of the Living Dead (1968). There is plenty in It Comes at Night that recalls the original zombie horde movie, not the least of which is the amount of human tension that drives the horror. Perhaps more to the point, the human tension and the inhuman threat are tightly interwoven. The film begins as a surviving family assists in the death of their oldest member. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) shoot Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton), as he has become infected by a nameless contagion. The body is burned, smoke drifts into the dark woods, and life in the boarded-up house returns to normal.
Shortly afterwards, loud noises are heard in the only room with a door to open, and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) takes Travis and his dog to investigate. They capture a burglar named Will (Christopher Abbott), and after interrogation at the hands of Paul, they believe his story about his own family desperately seeking help. Paul’s family decides to allow Will’s family to join them in the secure household, with a few reservations. Yes, the cabin becomes a pressure cooker as fear of an infected already in the house spreads among the six people and Stanley the dog.
While this movie arrives with the genre trappings of a zombie movie, it really isn’t. There is an infection, and there is something lurking in the woods that remains unseen, but that makes travel at night a life-and-death decision. Outside of that, the only glimpse we have of the horror in the dark are the fever visions/hallucinations that Travis has of the infected around him. The veracity of the things that Travis sees is key to the troubling uncertainty of the film, and it will be up to the viewer to decide what the truth of his point-of-view is. Unknowing is at the heart of this film, as Paul and Sarah both make it clear they don’t know anything beyond the limited forest paths they feel safe roaming. Director Trey Edward Shults never lets the audience know more than the people in his cabin, and the film is made all the better for it.
The film is an independent effort, and made with a love for all that means. Directed to bare bones essentials, it’s a true-blue effort that makes no pretentious “indie” decisions at the expense of the world of the film. No gratuitous movements, no cheesy color correction, and cinematographer Drew Daniels keeps his camera pointed exactly where it needs to be. No one on this crew was showing off, and it shows in every essential frame of the film. The soundtrack is a bit loud at times, and feels too composed for a film that is so moody and uncertain. This could’ve been a creative decision to keep a deliberately paced film moving for theatrical audiences, but the result at times breaks the cardinal rule of soundtrack: don’t be noticed.
Across the board, the performances are solid and scaled to the film and the circumstance. Everything is tight, quiet, and restrained until the inevitable moment where life inside the house becomes the opposite of all these things. Even then, nothing is overwrought. The result of this is that when the most brutal and unforgiving images arrive on the screen there is little to distract from them. They happen with all of the severity and quickness of non-theatrical violence. So let this serve as a trigger warning if you are a human being: you will want to look away.
Like It Follows, It Comes at Night doesn’t make its mark with a totally original concept. The movie works by digging into genre conventions and twisting them this way and that, exposing the uncomfortable spaces that more mainstream films push far down into the subtext or avoid completely. This movie does it so well that the unspoken is obvious and the unseen is terribly present at all times. Like all good, sincere horror filmmaking, It Comes at Night leads the audience to the edge of the lantern light, to that place where the last touches of illumination create the hints of things. That place where all you can see is the lightless space of the night. That moment when you cannot see anything, but have no doubt that something is looking back at you.
Because that is exactly what comes at night.