It is late at night. A secluded house resides deep in the woods, far from civilization. Rather than projecting calm or peace, the forest is full of menace—something lurks within it. Director Trey Edward Shults understands the chilling nature of the woods and exploits it magnificently in his second feature, It Comes at Night.
That house, more like a wooden mansion than a log cabin, is occupied by a small family: Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The film opens with the three saying goodbye to Travis’s grandfather, who is infected with an unexplained sickness. He’s covered with dark purple sores and his pupils are turning into swirling pools of dark ink.
Paul puts a bullet in the grandfather’s head, before burying him in a ditch and torching the remains. Left unexplained is whether this is to put the old man out of his misery, or to prevent a more horrifying transformation.
The family’s hermetic existence is punctured when Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks in at night, seemingly searching for water. After confirming that he isn’t sick, Paul allows Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew to live with them, sharing their water in exchange for livestock. It’s a comfortable existence, at least for a while. But Will has secrets of his own and a past that doesn’t make sense.
Shults resists the temptation to turn his film into a generic gorefest, or a Walking Dead rip-off. Those kinds of modern horror films play on the strength of our stomachs, rather than our desire to be frightened.
The best way to understand the movie is through the difference between horror and terror; horror is the sense of revulsion we get after seeing something frightening, whereas terror is the feeling of dread we have when something frightening is just around the corner. It Comes at Night is a terror film, not a horror film. That tension never lets up, and we’re never allowed to relax.
Like The Blair Witch Project (another movie that finds terror out in the woods), It Comes at Night concerns itself with mysteries: what does this sickness do, and who is vulnerable? Does civilization as we know it still exist? And is something hiding in these woods? We desperately want to know, but fear the answer.