With big-budget horror mostly languishing, the recent successes in the genre have come from independent filmmakers, smaller studios fostering unique voices and emerging talents. It has also been the case in the past that bursts of great horror films align with periods of political and social uncertainty. It's in the spirit of both these circumstances that writer/director Trey Edward Shults delivers his second film after his acclaimed debut 'Krisha' (2015), in the form of a claustrophobic nightmare of great technical prowess. However, are the aesthetics of 'It Comes At Night' enough to set it up against the contemporary horror classics?
Teenager Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) lives with his father Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) in a remote farmhouse, secure and isolated after some sort of apocalyptic virus has started to spread. They have removed themselves from the world crumbling down outside to keep safe and stay alive. That security is threatened though when Will (Christopher Abbott) and Kim (Riley Keough) come asking for help with their young son. But will offering assistance put all of them at risk from whatever it is that threatens them?
If you were to look at 'It Comes At Night' from a purely technical perspective, it would be a slam dunk. Shults' command of tone and tension is often exquisite, permeating the film with a palpable sense of dread and immediacy. Drew Daniels' cinematography is masterful, an unnerving visual symphony is shadows and light, where any piece of negative space pulses with potential. It is this principle - the sense of the impending 'something' - that gives the film its pulse, driving it towards the climax we assume is coming. Shults' screenplay, sparse and unrelentingly oppressive, lays a series of clues and unusual happenings that keep you arrested to the screen, and especially through the eyes of Travis, both fascinated and terrified as to their meaning and outcome. The best horror films work when the storyteller takes their time setting everything up, putting all the pieces carefully in place before bringing them crashing down and revealing the infernal mechanisms that have been there all along.
The problem is, the "build-up" is all this film seems to be. Those clues and unusual happenings never actually go anywhere, so that when the resolution comes, it leaves you feeling unsatisfied and confused. That isn't to say that the film needs to answer all its questions (a film like 'It Follows' manages to remain ambiguous and satisfying), but Shults doesn't answer the mystery that he sets up. He instead goes for a frenetic and violent eruption in the final minutes of the film that don't fulfil any promise made by everything that has lead up to it. Perhaps its purpose is to be a comment on human nature in crisis or a kind of socio-political allegory, but the film doesn't land either of those concepts well enough to make its intentions clear. There's also the very palpable sense of another outside presence in the film (sculpted so beautifully in the film's strongest sequence involving Travis' dog Stanley), but that presence is never accounted for or further explored. This may sound like a criticism of the concept of the ambiguous ending, but that trope is tricky to accomplish. When successful, it can leave you breathless and reeling. In this case however, it just leaves you cold and confused, and wondering why you were asked to endure an hour and a half of unrelenting bleakness and tension. Shults may maintain that bleakness beautifully, but he can't seem to justify its existence. Consequently, all the incredible aesthetic accomplishments of the film end up feeling derivative, evoking the tone and texture of far better horror films of late like 'The Witch' or '10 Cloverfield Lane'.
Perhaps its purpose is to be a comment on human nature in crisis or a kind of socio-political allegory, but the film doesn't land either of those concepts well enough to make its intentions clear.
The screenplay doesn't provide much more than sketches for the talented cast to play with, but some are able to transcend this. Kelvin Harrison Jr is tremendous as Travis, delivering a performance full of heart and hope, tinged with sadness and blind terror. The heart of the film is in his performance, and whatever the actions of the other characters, he is the one we wish the best for. Joel Edgerton is fine as Paul, but we've seen this character from him before (even from parts he has written for himself) and it's starting to become a bit old-hat. Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are lovely to watch but aren't around enough to really make an impact, and you can't shake the feeling that Christopher Abbott is just playing a narrative cypher until the point where you realise he probably isn't.
For the majority of 'It Comes At Night', I was totally behind it. The craft is impeccable and its evocation of genuinely palpable tension and dread a demonstration of Trey Edward Shults as a talented director. However, by essentially going nowhere and leaving way too many nagging, frustrating holes in the plot unfulfilled, the entire film comes apart like a dropped ball of string in its final minutes. Maybe there's some hidden meaning in there that I'm missing, but the film didn't give me enough of the tools to find it. Even its name is a promise of something the film isn't - in the end, there doesn't seem to be anything out there in the night except a bunch of hollow bumps.