I have to admit, I’m pleasantly surprised with the direction horror movies have gone over the past couple years. Horror has in some respects also adopted the thriller genre. Take last years stand out The Witch. A slow burning but chilling horror flick with some genuinely terrifying moments. Some define horror as having the crap scared out of you but jump scares and creepy imagery. For me, when horror is at its best, its a small setting, with some creepy characters or moments of nail biting tension. This years Split is a prime example of those qualities. When I read that Trey Edward Shults’ follow up to his brilliant debut, Krisha, was a horror film I was excited. Having watched Krisha, a stirring and raw look at family drama, you can get a sense of the type of films that are in Shults’ wheel house. His newest, It Comes At Night is a simple, yet creepy and effective piece of filmmaking that could be, and should be Shults’ big break.
What is so amazing about It Comes At Night is it takes advantage of a confined setting, and making the viewer feel like they are in that space. The film stars Joel Edgerton as Paul, a man taking care of his family in a post-apocalyptic Earth that leaves the world sick with a deadly illness. After his father-in-law succumbs to the sickness, Paul, his wife Sarah, (Carmen Ejogo) and his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) tearfully let him go as to put him out of his misery. Sometime after, they encounter an intruder named Will (Christopher Abbott). Paul struggles to trust Will as he concerned he is sick. The family co-exist with Will’s family as tensions rise in the house they live in.
Shults has an analogy to make here, but its not the star of the show. This isn’t the pretentious indie most people seem to be afraid of. Shults gives us a horror movie where humanity is the monster. We’re not entirely sure who to root for, and thats okay. Will and Paul, the patriarchs of their respected families are both cynical, they are both nervous of the circumstances of their situation. In the end, human nature plays its hand and we are left as the judge and jury in the case of their morals. Their motives are unquestionably valid however.
It Comes At Night is a masterclass in directing. Shults, as he did in his directorial debut, chooses to focus on tight groups and spaces. What we get, is a claustrophobic type feel. Shults and his director of photography Drew Daniels choose to use extreme close ups to capture that enclosed space feeling and ratchets it up with an eerie yet ethereal score. The focus is ultimately the star in this movie, and the upstart directors focus is razor sharp. Good horror, to this writer, is always about challenging cultural dynamics rather than jump scares and gross imagery. That is why a film like Get Out which isn’t textbook horror, but studies a cultural idea rather than a demon possessing a body or other cheap horror tactics. It Comes At Night at face value has more of that horror vibe than something like Get Out.
The performances in this film are remarkable. Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo are always solid, committed actors. The stand out is Kelvin Harrison Jr. Harrison, as the 17-year-old son Travis, balances a tricky role. Travis wants to be like his father, but ultimately finds him overbearing and too protective. He has a close relationship with his dog and sometimes contentious one with his father. It is a nuanced performance that is brilliantly played. Travis has to become an adult faster than most kids would. To some extent, he embraces it. Often however, there are times when he wants to be a teenager. This is seen briefly when he has a great scene with Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough)
What Shults has constructed, is a personal piece of filmmaking. He has even admitted he wrote the film after dealing with the grief surrounding the death of his father. However, It Comes At Night is a tale of a father doing everything he can to protect his family. Paranoia is a heavy theme in this film and it is felt at nearly every moment of tension. Speaking of that tension, Shults nails every moment of tension in this film. Much of that is due to the opening scene and the emotional weight it carries.
Bad horror movies have characters that are tough to connect with because they make terrible decisions. Paul, Will and the rest of the characters in this film may seemingly make terrible decisions, but we can connect because we understand the motives. With each person they encounter there is a blessing and a curse. The blessing being that they can pool resources. While the curse; we never know who is infected as little is known about the sickness to be found within the film.
Shults doesn’t tackle anything new, but no one said every film has to be ground breaking. After all there are only a certain amount of themes one can tackle in a single movie. But it is his fresh take coupled with some great directing that makes It Comes At Night a stand out among the best of a horror genre that appears to be on the cusp of a rebranding. We’ll always have The Bye Bye Man‘s and the Paranormal Activity type horror movies to look at and skewer. It Comes At Night is a combination of incredibly tense, claustrophobic thrills and deeply emotional themes that create a stunningly good film from a director who has a incredibly bright future.