Don't go in to It Comes at Night expecting to see a horror movie. Although it is being sold at such, it really isn't; It Comes At Night is actually a fear movie. It has many of the cliches that you might expect from a horror film – a house in a creepy woods, a strange illness that is killing people, running through the woods at night with torches, boarded-up windows and barricades and locked doors and dimly-lit corridors – but there are no cheap jump scares, and no machete-wielding immortal madmen stalking those woods. What it deals with is what terrifies us deep down in the very pit of our souls.
It Comes at Night is a film that unsettles the audience right from the word go. The film opens with a death, and it's not a pleasant one – an elderly man covered in boils and suppurating sores is struggling to breathe as a black tar-like substance oozes from his mouth. He's taken into the woods by his son-in-law and grandson, who both wear gas masks, before he is shot in the head, dropped into a shallow grave and burnt. It's a post-apocalyptic world, where humanity has been devastated by a horrifying plague - but we never learn what it is, where it came from, and just how many people are left.
Father Paul (Joel – who we met at the start dispatching his father-in-law – lives deep in the woods with his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). The house is boarded up and the rooms inside are lined with plastic sheeting. Nobody is allowed outside at night, and when they do go out in the day, they must go in pairs. Everything changes one night when someone breaks in to the house – Will (Christopher Abbott), who is looking for water for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). They are hiding out in an abandoned house 50 miles away, and have food they can bring with them if Paul lets them move in with his family. They are not sick, but something just doesn't seem right.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults (this is only his second feature) and cinematographer Drew Daniels work hard to make It Comes at Night as chilling and claustrophobic as possible. The film is mostly shot using whatever light is available – mottled daylight when out in the woods, torchlight or gas lanterns at night. In tone it feels much like the TV survival horror The Walking Dead, but there are no zombies here. It's a film where society has broken down, and a man will do whatever he can to protect his family. The well-chosen cast is terrific, with Edgerton particularly excellent as the patriarch and newcomer Harrison a real standout as the teenage son who suffers from bizarre dreams.
There is no physical monster in It Comes at Night; the real monster at the heart of the film is paranoia, and fear itself. It's a smart film that raises many questions, and leaves almost all of them unanswered. It's creepy, atmospheric, tense and mysterious, yet thoroughly engaging and effective with a constant sense of dread. It Comes at Night has an awful lot to say about the human condition, and you may not like what it tells you.