In his debut feature, Krisha, young director Trey Edward Shults crafted an incredible level of tension & terror by staging a dramatic Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house. The wait to see what Shults could do with a bigger budget and a more straightforward horror tone has been blissfully short. His follow-up feature, It Comes at Night, has been pushed into wide release by modern indie distribution giants A24 and boasts recognizable actors like Joel Edgerton & Riley Keough (unlike Krisha‘s cast, which was mostly filled out by Shults & his family). First weekend horror audiences have been loudly disappointed by the film, saddling it with a “D” CinemaScore for not living up to their genre expectations, the same way a mass of people vocally derided The Witch, (our favorite film of 2016) upon its initial release. Do not be fooled by the grumbles & whines. Shults’s command of tension & terror is just as impressive here as it is in Krisha, even continuing that debut’s focus on familial discord & grief. The exciting thing is seeing that terror blown up to a slick, multi-million dollar film budget instead of a self-propelled scrappy indie production.
Two young families struggle to survive a post-apocalyptic American landscape devastated by a deadly virus, a plague. This isn’t the outbreak horror of the more narrative-focused The Girl With All the Gifts, however. There are no zombies, no monsters, no transformations. The infected merely die, rot, and spread disease. The two families we get to know in this bleak scenario attempt to find peace & optimism in domestic cohabitation. They keep telling themselves everything will be fine, but there’s no indication that anything can or will ever improve. Edgerton’s paterfamilias often commands the room, setting firm rules on how to keep infected strangers & animals locked out of their peaceful, isolated cabin in the woods. It’s his teenage son who acts as the film’s de facto protagonist, though. Late at night, once the comfort of domestic routines and keeping busy fades away, the teen boy’s mind begins to wander into darkness. Anxieties over survival, sexuality, and sorrow for those already lost haunt him in hallucinatory dreams and late night walks through the house’s eerie hallways. What comes at night is not any kind of physically manifested evil, but rather an extreme grief for what’s already been lost and a dread for the violent, depressing end that’s fated to come in the near future.
Dream logic and nightmare imagery are a cinematic pleasure I never tire of and Shults does a fantastic job of building tension in these moments of subconscious dread. If It Comes at Night can be understood as the horror film A24 marketed it to be, those genre beats are wholly contained in the teen protagonist’s stress-induced nightmares. Nightmare imagery is not exactly unique territory for horror, though. Its presence in the genre stretches at least as far back as the German Expressionism movement of the silent era. What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Shults inexplicably stirs up that same level of anxious terror in Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford in his debut: beauty. The nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.
Not everything in It Comes at Night is disjointed dream logic & slow burn focus on atmospheric tone. There’s plenty of tense dialogue, creepy treks through the woods, gunfire, and desperate scavenging for food & clean water. Often, the film’s late night eeriness is used to quietly lull the audience into a false sense of safety before a loud, disruptive threat explodes onscreen. It can even be a visually ugly film when the moment calls for it, often lighting trees & hallways like a crime scene via rifle-mounted flashlights. I’m not surprised that first weekend audiences were frustrated by their expectations of a straightforward genre film, though. Edgerton is an amazing screen presence who once again wholly disappears into his role, somewhat anchoring the film in dramatic moments of disagreement with his wife & son. There’s no explicit explanation of his demeanor or plans, however, just like how there’s no expositional explanation of the history of the plague that has trapped his family in that cabin in the woods. The highlights of the film are more image-focused & ethereal: a triangle-shaped shadow, complex tree roots & branches, sweeping pan shots & drone-aided arials, an intense fixation on a red door that separates the family from the plague lurking outside.
The subtlety of It Comes at Night‘s overwhelming potency is never more apparent than it is at its violent climax. That’s when its aspect ratio gradually, almost unnoticeably constricts its action into an increasingly cramped frame that gets more constrictive by the second until there’s no room to breathe. It’s in that climax that you get the sense that Shults may just be a master in the making. Let’s just hope that the memory of that “D” CinemaScore fades away quickly enough for more production money to flow the director’s way. If he can craft such memorably terrifying, personally revelatory works on budgets this minuscule, I’d love to see what he could do with total financial freedom, general audiences be damned.