What would you do to protect your family and how much of your soul will you sacrifice to keep the ones you love safe? This is the question squirming at the heart of Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night, a bleak apocalyptic study in how fear, madness, paranoia and distrust are ultimately more terrifying and destructive than any monster, real or imagined.
The basic premise of It Comes at Night is an all too familiar one, but in its execution, is a very different beast. The film focuses on a small family comprising of father Paul (Joel Egerton), mother Sara (Carmen Ejogo last seen in Alien: Covenant) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) hiding out in the wilderness, away from an unseen world stricken with an unknown deadly virus until their regimented lives, following strict safety rules and routines, are disrupted when their house is broken into by Will (Christopher Abbot) a man desperate for supplies for his wife and son.
Paul is distrustful, but eventually he and Sarah decide to welcome Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son, Andrew (played by newcomer Griffin Robert Faulkner) into their home, believing that there is safety in numbers. However, despite the arrangement initially working out, it is not long before the seeds of distrust, paranoia and suspicion begin to erode the seemingly idyllic group.
At the eye of the storm is Paul and Sarah’s son Travis, a 17-year-old boy mentally traumatised by events at the start of the film, who spies upon everyone via an attic room that seems to channel sound from all over the house, desperate to engage in human interaction. Travis is the glimmer of humanity in this film, initially closed off and plagued by disturbing dreams, most of which provide the film with its shock moments and supernatural imagery. He’s slowly working his way towards manhood, something confused somewhat by his sudden crush upon the newly arrived Kim. Yet it’s his actions, driven by his humanity and empathy throughout the film that tragically edge the other characters towards the movies nihilistically brutal conclusion.
It Comes At Night is, at its heart, a jittery, claustrophobic drama, with paranoia drenching every frame, recalling the tense opening two thirds of 10 Cloverfield Lane or Stephen Fingleton’s very under rated flick The Survivalist. The performances of everyone involved are uniformly excellent, especially Joel Edgerton and Kelvin Harrison Jr. both of whom brilliantly inhabit their roles, letting you feel the pain, fear, hope and desperation of these characters with the smallest of gestures. The cinematography by Drew Daniels is exquisite, producing some stunningly oppressive imagery, framing every shot with a perfect eye for piling on the pressure and ratcheting up the tension. Despite this the film is not without its flaws.
From the opening frames writer and director Trey Edward Shults, works very hard to keep the information the audience has available limited to what the characters themselves know at any moment. This is initially welcome and effective in cranking up the unease by forcing the audience to build the world themselves from the information in frame, rather than have a random “Basil Exposition” character arrive and explain the last decade of viral apocalypse. Though, while this works at the start, as the film progresses the lack of information begins to leave plot threads hanging, events unexplained and in a few cases utterly unresolved.
Normally unanswered plot threads in this kind of film are sauce for the goose, adding more uncertainty and distrust to the plot, yet by the conclusion of It Comes At Night the feeling is one of mild irritation and the sense that throwing the audience even the smallest bone would have helped immensely. Nevertheless, you have to admire Shults’ adherence to his desire to not spoon feed the audience any additional information and let them interpret events as they will. What is more divisive and less forgivable however, is Shults’ over reliance of the hoary old horror stalwart of the “Shock dream sequence” aka the “Phew! it was only a dream” moment.
The use of the shock dream moment, whereby something utterly terrifying will occur to a character only for the film to cut to the same character sitting up in bed in shock, is one of the cheapest tricks in the book for any horror film, yet It Comes At Night pulls this, not once or twice but at least five times.
Clearly Shults feels these moments are necessary interludes that reflect a certain character’s mental state or own sense of helplessness in this increasingly bleak situation. But the problem is that outside of the dream scares subtext, the implication for the narrative is that something terrifying and perhaps supernatural is closing in on the beleaguered group which is a promise the film, disappointingly, never keeps.
In many ways, It Comes At Night feels like a spiritual cousin to another notionally labelled horror film, that lacked the usual horror trappings, Robert Eggers The Witch; for many of you that will act as a flag to put you off, while for others it will be the opposite. Yet, like The Witch if you’re willing to experience It Comes At Night on its own terms rather than expecting an outright guts n gore horror film, there is much to admire and appreciate in this latest entry into the new wave horror.
Overall, despite the horror tropes and a misleading marketing campaign that would have you believe that the film was part 28 Weeks Later and part Spanish found footage classic [REC], with perhaps a dash of John Carpenters The Thing thrown in for good measure; the reality is that It Comes At Night is an interesting, stylish, solid, if occasionally frustrating, bleak dystopian drama, dripping with atmosphere, dread and perfectly evoking a sense of isolation supported by excellent performances, but let down somewhat by its almost pathological need to keep things vague at times.