As any connoisseur of fine horror films will tell you, what makes a scare film superior and stand up to repeat viewings is not a rapid succession of jump-out-of-your-seat moments. It’s about establishing sustained suspense that sometimes leads to big, scary moments but often times simply leaves you with a lingering, anticipatory feeling of crushing dread. There is a power in the unknown that is unlike anything else when it comes to establishing terror. The more you know about the way something scary operates or where it comes from, the less scary it becomes. It’s the reason that the minute you see a monster in all of its glory, it becomes less scary because you have a better idea of what you’re dealing with. But when you exist in the world of the unknown, you don’t know what should scare you, and as a result, everything makes you tense and nervous and jumpy.
The greatest power in writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ second feature, It Comes at Night, is that it never takes the time to explain a damn thing to the audience. It drops a few hints about a world in which there is a plague-like virus that kills within hours of being exposed to it and is highly contagious, but that’s about all we get. The virus doesn’t turn you into a zombie or make you crazed enough to kill or deliberate infect those around you—this isn’t that kind of movie—it simply destroys your body, and in this one, family-owned house in the woods, the infected are dealt with by taking them outside, shooting them, burning their bodies, and burying the remains, all while the healthy are wearing gas masks.
The family in question is led by Paul (Joel Edgerton of Loving), a one-time teacher turned survivalist who has established a safety protocol for his family to live by or face the wrath of dad. Paul, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo of Selma), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) open the film by regrettably have just had to kill Sarah’s father (David Pendleton) after he contracted the virus. Speaking again to the power of less information, we never find out how, in such an isolated environment, he contracted the virus, and that makes us more nervous about just how airborne this thing really is. We never find out where the virus came from, how it spread through the population, how widespread the contagion is, or even if it’s manmade or something that was unleashed naturally. Knowing any of those things would chip away at the suspense, and Shults isn’t letting us off that easily.
Shults’ previous film was a horror film of another variety, the extreme family drama Krisha, which dealt with unwanted visitors around the holidays, as well as addiction, and it will make you as uneasy and anxious as you likely can feel while watching a movie. Krisha was an exceedingly personal film for the filmmaker (he used his real-life family in the cast), and I don’t get the sense that It Comes at Night is any less so. From the tearful goodbye that Sarah give her father in the opening sequence that feels like a deathbed farewell to horrific anxiety dreams that Travis has that are among the film’s most traditionally scary moments. He’s a young man attempting to process the horror around him, and he simply can’t.
The first signs of an outside world come when a man named Will (Christopher Abbot of James White) shows up and breaks into the house, assuming it’s empty, searching for supplies for his family many miles away. After Paul subdues him and imprisons Will for time to get information, the two head back to Will’s home where he promises there are live animals and other supplies that Paul and his family could certainly need. After surviving an attack on the way to Will’s house, they return with the rest of Will’s family, which includes wife Kim (Riley Keough from American Honey) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), as well as the promised livestock, all of which makes for a lovely extended-family existence for a time. But nothing lasts forever.
One of the more curious things about It Comes at Night is the title itself. One of the rules of the house is that there is only one door in and out of the domicile, and one night Travis (who doesn’t sleep much at night) is wandering the house when he discovers young Andrew asleep on the floor of a room outside his parents’ room and the front door partially open with a strange noise coming from just outside. Without giving too much away, a new brand of paranoia begins almost immediately. Who opened the door? Is whoever did so exposed to the virus? What was outside the door, or did Travis dream it, as he has been known to do? The two families agree to separate themselves within the house for a time to see if anyone gets sick, but before enough time passes to even know for sure, the tenuous social structure of the household begins to crumble rapidly.
It’s painfully (and sadly accurately) certain that Shults is aware that human beings in survival mode are their own worst enemies, even if they think what they’re doing are for good reasons. Paul only cares about the safety of his brood, and he justifies his brutal (some might say unforgivable) actions from the first moments of the film under the banner of self-preservation. Nothing in this movie scared me more than watching Edgerton grab his gas mask and a shotgun for any reason, and that’s exactly the point.
It doesn’t take long to understand that It Comes at Night is terrifying, not from any outside source of danger, but because people are inherently at their worst when put under pressure of any kind. Shults has taken a very personal story of loss from his own life and turned it into a source of suspense and fear that feels natural and honest, making it into the smartest and scariest horror film of the year. But be warned, the movie is not paced like most conventional horror stories, and it may have you asking a lot of questions by the time it’s over. The good news is, that’s the point and it’s okay to have questions; just don’t let it bother you that most of them will remained unanswered. That only make the dread I spoke about earlier all the more palpable.