It’s a sign of the overall ambiguity of It Comes At Night, the hair-raising new chiller from writer-director Trey Edward Schults, that it’s never entirely clear what ‘it’ is. ‘It’ could be the deadly virus that has ravaged the world at large, forcing Paul (Joel Edgerton), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and 17-year old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) to barricade themselves in their woodland homestead. ‘It’ could be the nightmares that plague Travis whenever the sun goes down. ‘It’ could be the intruder who one night breaks into their home.
Or maybe it’s none of the above, and the studio just thought it would be a good title to lure in audiences expecting a straight-forward horror flick. Instead, some obvious jump-scares aside, viewers are treated to something that is far more slow-paced, but, for those patient enough, rarely less than gripping.
The family’s daily life – a tedious routine that doesn’t quite cover up their ceaseless anxiety – is interrupted by the arrival of a new group, a sort of younger version of themselves: Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their pre-school age son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Initially the two groups bond, seemingly delighted after a long period of isolation to have finally found companionship. But, inevitably, in the claustrophobic environs of the house paranoia and mistrust start to settle in, as contagious as the virus outside. “You can’t trust anybody but family,” Paul gravely informs Travis. “Do you know what people are capable of when they’re desperate?”
A suffocating atmosphere of dread hangs over It Comes At Night, making for deeply uneasy viewing. Within the boarded-up house, darkened even during the day, cinematographer Drew Daniels makes masterful use of shadows, particularly in a series of shots set in a lengthy hallway. And even in full daylight, there’s something supernaturally creepy, almost Blair Witch-like, about the woods outside. To the family the seemingly endless forest represents their entire world. An extended tracking shot along a woodland road is a masterclass in low-key tension building: I found myself holding my breath, nervously anticipating what lay behind the next corner.
An unsettling score from Dirty Projectors’ Brian McOmber provides the requisite sinister strings and droning synths, but for the most part Schults relies heavily on ambient sound – the creaks and groans of the house, the branches snapping and leaves rustling in the woods – to provide his film’s soundtrack. The audience’s ears strain against the silence, listening out for what might be coming next. Likewise Schults largely allows us to make up our own minds about what, if anything, lurks beyond the house’s walls, knowing that the the unseen horror is always the most frightening. The director’s minimalist style pays real dividends. It’s a gimmick-free, almost old-fashioned approach to psychological horror that slowly cranks up the tension, rendering its characters – and its viewers – tightly wound springs, close to breaking point.
At times, though, the minimalism has its downsides. At a brief 91 minutes long, It Comes At Night could have stood to be a little longer, if only to allow more time to allow the group’s internal rivalries to really simmer. Travis, a teenage boy who’s been cooped up inside with no female company but his mother, is fascinated by the beautiful Kim in a way that’s initially slightly endearing and then increasingly inappropriate. There’s a cracking scene between the two of them, late at night at the kitchen table, that positively brims with sexual tension. But after significant build-up this sub-plot never really goes anywhere, becoming overtaken by other events.
Likewise while in many ways It Comes At Night‘s ambiguity is one of its strengths – the audience is never told about the origins of the virus or what’s going on in the outside world, mirroring the characters’ isolation and heightening the paranoia – at times it’s a little too vague for its own good. In the most frustrating incidence, an explanation for a key plot point, involving a mysteriously unlocked door, is never provided, or even really hinted at. Sometimes a director letting the audience figure things out for themselves shows an admirable respect for the viewer. Sometimes it feels like cheating.
With its ultra-bleak tone and almost nihilistic vision of humanity brought low, It Comes At Night might be a hard watch, but it’s also a ruthlessly effective one. It’s arguably a triumph of mood over substance, with a deliberately thin plot that doesn’t hold up to significant scrutiny. It’s not wildly original, or above getting by on genre cliches. But if the role of a horror movie is to unnerve and unsettle, then this grim shocker can be relied upon to leave a shadow that lingers long in the mind.