What comes at night? Trey Edward Shults film is not forthcoming. Perhaps something spooky lurks in the woods. Perhaps there are people out there, people capable and willing to do all the horrific things people are capable and willing to do. Or perhaps there is nothing. What may or may not be coming at night is largely left up to us and what we can gather and infer from the tightly paced, piecemeal plotting. It Comes at Night is an inscrutable enigma of a film; but that inscrutability can be its biggest weakness.
At some unspecified point in the past, a mysterious disease has ravaged the U.S.; maybe even the world. Paul (Joel Edgerton), with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), has survived in his remote home in the forest. It is a meagre existence. They leave the house only when necessary, and at night only in emergencies. They wear gas masks to ward off the plague, which has already taken Travis’ grandfather; when the film opens, we see Paul and Travis’ burning his corpse.
The routine is interrupted when their house is discovered by Will (Christopher Abbott). After something of a rough welcome (how does being tied to a tree overnight take you?), Will and his family – wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew – are invited to stay. As is inevitable when people are confined to a small space with an unknown threat lurking outside, suspicions arise and tensions mount.
Watching It Comes at Night, I was reminded of last year’s The Witch. Both are films about isolated groups of people sheltering from a nebulous threat and succumbing to what may well be spurious assumptions. The specifics of the disease are left vague, and the characters themselves may not even know them. Paul begins to suspect that Will and his family may not be who they say they are.
And amid all of this are Travis’ dreams. They consist of the usual horror motifs. His grandfather’s corpse sits by Travis’ bed, blood filling his dead eyes. In another, Travis wanders into the midnight forest and sees something that horrifies him. Something we are not allowed to see. Do the boundaries between dreaming and waking begin to blur? Are these visions or hints of what may be lurking outside in the night? Shults certainly isn’t telling.
What Shults does do is expertly pace his film. It Comes at Night is a taut ninety minutes. Details are sparse, layered through the dialogue and the scenery, allowing for several interpretations of what could be going on. A brief comment from a character could, if analysed, shed a different light on the eerie dream sequences.
All of this sounds like it could have the makings of a classic horror film. So why did I emerge from It Comes at Night feeling dissatisfied? It has to do, I think, with what lies under the surface. Or, more accurately, what doesn’t. The Witch’s strange occurrences hid an assiduously researched examination of its period’s religious fears. It Comes at Night, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be hiding anything at all. The pseudo-supernatural elements of Travis’ dreams don’t amount to anything. That may be the point, but it is still disappointing when nothing comes of them. Lines are crossed, horrifically so; but the exploration of the pitch black side of human nature feels rote. There is nothing new in the admittedly disquieting ending.
At a time when independent horror, outside of the Platinum Dunes/James Wan assembly lines, is better than it’s ever been (The Witch, of course; The Babadook; Under the Shadow), this is a lesser work. There are a handful of thrills, and Joel Edgerton continues to prove why he is so sought after. But ultimately, It Comes at Night is less than the sum of its parts.