This is turning out to be quite a year for horror movies. Pure coincidence, of course. And while the genre waxes and wanes like the moon over a creepy old house, it is unlikely to disappear as long as we have fears that need purging. It’s the nature of those fears that tends to shift over time — from the social to the psychological, from supernatural evil to human depravity, from what’s out there to what’s in here.
“It Comes at Night,” a rigorous and astute film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, plays the outside-in dialectic beautifully. Initially, the premise looks like one we’ve seen plenty of times before: An epidemic has wiped out a lot of the population; food and water are scarce; survivors barricade themselves against contamination from the sick and competition from the healthy.
All of that is established quickly and obliquely. No zombies come shambling through the woods, and Mr. Shults doesn’t jolt the audience with false scares or showy plot twists. He builds up the dread with ruthless efficiency and minimal gimmickry, relying on and refreshing some of the oldest techniques in the book. The camera glides down a long, dimly lighted corridor. The soundtrack pulses with dissonant chords and heartbeat rhythms. (The score is by Brian McOmber.) Daylight is scarce, and shadows are long.
Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), with their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and a dog named Stanley have turned a rambling country house into a fortress and a sanctuary. Grieving after the death of Sarah’s father (David Pendleton), they cling to a routine that they hope will keep them safe. Before long they are joined by another family, a younger, less somber mirror image of themselves: Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough) and their little son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).
ANATOMY OF A SCENE
Trey Edward Shults Narrates a Scene From ‘It Comes at Night’ JUNE 8, 2017
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Needless to say, the visitors bring complications as well as companionship. There is sexual tension between Travis and Kim, and masculine rivalry between Paul and Will. Mistrust simmers and occasionally breaks into the open. The forest, meanwhile, is full of strange sounds and movements. And the house is full of guns.