From its opening frames, IT COMES AT NIGHT sets itself up as a puzzle to be solved. Indeed, director Trey Edward Shults’s film almost defies categorisation for the most of its running time. Part survivalist film and part horror, this claustrophobic thriller is a dark slice of post-apocalyptic macabre.
As an elderly grandfather (David Pendleton) suffering from a contagious illness is taken out and shot, it is immediately clear that this is a world in the grip of death. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) live in a desolate but secure house in the woods with their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). That changes when Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, looking for food and shelter. Reluctantly agreeing to let him stay there with his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son, the mutually beneficial setup eventually has them asking whether they made the right choice.
IT COMES AT NIGHT is all about mood. Early in the piece, Drew Daniels’ photography slowly and eerily takes us down a long corridor towards a red door. It completely envelops us in that world before violently punctuating it with flashes of the grandfather in screaming anger. Yet Shults doesn’t rely on these jump scares to create his horror, instead letting it seep through from exterior once we are in a place of comfort.
Think of this as the kind of horror film that is adjacent to the traditional spookfests that the title would imply, or what some critics are already referring to as ‘post-horror.’ The worst has already happened in a way, with society and its crumble a long way from the centre of the carefully measured action. All those things that occupy the bulk of any other infestation/slasher narrative have passed, and these are the last few stragglers.
So Shults has designed his film so that literally everything will illicit a sense of unease. It’s an isolated cabin. In the woods. Which may or may not have something lurking in them. Which may or may not be infected by something indeterminate. In the the dark. Indeed, everything is dark in this film, with the scarce lighting coming from the dimly powered lanterns that the characters carry. As such, any new element is to be treated with suspicion, and the seemingly loving family of Abbott and Keough are equally suspect in this low light. Of course, this approach brings with it a certain sterility that some viewers will find difficult to penetrate.
IT COMES AT NIGHT is a horror film, but it’s the kind that looks at what humans are capable of when their fears are pushed to the fringes. The bleak and nihilistic ending leaves us on point that even Cormac McCarthy’s similarly themed The Road chose to leave some positive ambiguity around. If the film falters, it is in a final act that attempts to categorise those fears into more familiar genre packages, resulting in a tense standoff that only has one conclusion.