Every year now an art house horror movie comes along that gets audiences all riled, buzzing breathlessly over its daring and elegant take on terror. First came The Babadook, then It Follows and The Witch. Now arrives It Comes at Night, writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ anticipated follow-up to his celebrated dramedy Krishna. This unique thriller earned a wave of buzz out of the horror-specific Overlook Film Festival. But as no horror movie has hit me the way The Babadook did, I have grown wary of such buzz, as it often guarantees disappointment on my part. I wished to be scared to tatters by this mysterious movie whose trailers sell its scariness by slathering on mood, and punctuating with bits of ill gore. But this—it turns out—is not my kind of horror.
The world of It Comes At Night suffers from a great plague. Its specifics will remain vague. Its origins are never discussed by the family of three at the film’s center, a protective father named Paul (Joel Edgerton), a fragile mother called Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) reeling from the recent death of her own dad, and their tender-hearted teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Living in a remote cabin in somewhere rural, America, they hunt in the woods by day, and at night live by strict rules that lock out whatever terrors might lurk in the darkness, behind a thick and ominous red door. Little wonder, Travis is haunted by nightmares. The world around him is uncertain, and as the film begins, he helps not only bury his infected grandfather, but watches helpless as his father puts a bullet in the old man’s brain. It’s brutal euthanasia that instantly cements the stakes of this world, and the atrocity of the disease. But Travis still dreams of his grandfather, or rather he has nightmares of his return and revenge through infection.
One night, the family erupts from sleep on high alert as someone has clearly breached the house’s sole point of entrance. There, Paul discovers a scruffy and near-starving young man, Will (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), who claims he has a family of his own seeking help. Here is where the crux of the film is rooted. In times of danger, who do you trust? Does Will really mean no harm? Does he have a family? Should they be invited into the house to share resources?
It’s an intriguing endeavor to spin terror out of trust issues. And Travis’s premonitions make visual the tensions brewing in the house, as he has nightmares about Will, sexual fantasies about Will’s warm wife Kim (Riley Keough), and panicked dreams of doom. But these dreams are as close as the film gets to scares, and these are mainly of the jump variety. The rest is all mood and menace without climax.
The performances are tense and nuanced, building a compelling narrative. Husbands and wives share harried whispers as Travis eavesdrops through thin walls. Edgerton and Abbott circle each other like to junkyard dogs, waiting to see if a fight is inevitable. Then, finally, a pivotal event occurs that suggests Shults will step past all this dread and into some boom of terror or catharsis. There’s a disturbing finale and an unnerving resolution. But it was ultimately underwhelming, leaving unanswered many questions, and unresolved this stomach-churning suspense. It’s as if the ending evaporates instead of explodes.
Shults creates a tense and anxiety-inducing build, layering in interpersonal drama, teen angst, paranoia, and fear of this mysterious disease that blooms black marks, dead eyes, and black bile outbursts from slack jaws. But he bungles the conclusion by denying us something cathartically dramatic. There’ll be no big realizations about the disease, no ghoulish grandpa racing through hallways to reek vengeance on the family who put him down like a lame horse, no thrilling chase. Instead, Shults offers an ending that is as restrained as the rest, and generous in bleakness. Which—while a bold break from genre expectations—feels like a cop out. All these nightmares seemed to be building to some big event, and instead of a BOOM we get a sad showdown. In the end, I was left hungry for a payoff that never came, and lamenting that It Comes At Night’s mood and nightmares are not enough to be satisfyingly scary.