It would be easy to expect a horror film from the trailer of It Comes At Night, but those familiar with Trey Edwards Shults’ debut feature Krisha should know better. Though he may not be quite skilled at the in-your-face scare, Shults is clearly an intelligent and unique voice for those who love to mix darker shades with their taut family dramas. The 28 year old director is clearly fixated on more heady family dynamics, and tackling a post-apocalyptic scenario seems to be the perfect funnel for his quiet and conflicted moral quandaries with terrifying implications.
It Comes At Night is obviously set after a sickness has ravaged humanity, or at least a section of it. An illness which is characterised by thick cracked blotches on the skin and upchucked black goo is the unseen but oppressive antagonist. Though the origin of the sickness isn’t explained, nor is it given any sort of wider context through cheap uses of urgent broadcasts from the outside world, the affliction is highly contagious and dangerous enough to force Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) to board themselves up in a tiny cabin in the woods along with their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his beloved dog Stanley.
The setting is borrowed from films of the past of course; there’s a lot of Cabin Fever in the setting, even the beginning sequence of 28 Weeks Later, but Shults has carved out an atmosphere that in many ways takes the sense of dread to an extreme, no less credited to some excellent camera work by Drew Daniels, slowly drawing out of subjects to focus on the ominous woods when outside, and navigating the cabin with claustrophobia and terror while inside. Even the hallway that leads to the ominous red door, the main entrance to the cabin that needs to remain locked at all times, is reduced to a narrow, nightmarish walk by direction that knows just how to create tense horror from seemingly nothing.
The film kicks off with Sarah’s father (David Pendleton) – Travis’ grandfather – succumbing to the illness, lovingly laid out as Paul nervously unloads one clean shot in his head, right before he takes the body out into the woods and burns it, watching the flames crackle up towards sky as he looks on through a protective gas mask. Uncertainty latches onto the film – and the viewer – without ever letting go from that point.
Solitude surrounds this small family until they come across Will (Christopher Abbott), who has a family of his own to think about in addition to plenty of supplies to trade for some ever-precious water. After Paul’s extreme caution is stretched and highlighted at Will’s expense, the stranger’s story checks out and he and his wife Kim (Riley Keough) are invited to take the spare room in the cabin, which they do so with their infant son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Just knowing that something is going to go wrong sooner or later is enough to lift this atmosphere even further, mixing with Shults’ intentionally taut thrills for suspense that is absolutely gut-wrenching – as nightmarish as Travis’ haunted dreams.
Someone must get sick at some point, right? That’s the point of these movies and the only logical next step. Like supernatural visionary James Wan and other successful contemporary horror directors, Shults has a clear-cut understanding that what the audience imagines is far more terrifying than anything he can put in front of them, and he sure plays on our tendency to scare ourselves with our own vivid imaginations, trusting the suspense will keep growing without ever blowing too early.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Run time: 91 minutes
It Comes at Night is now screening in Australia.