In most genres, “it” is a benign pronoun. In horror, it is a manifestation of the indescribable — your worst nightmares incarnate.
In Stephen King’s It, which will finally lurk onto the big screen in September, the title being is a clownlike manifestation of the inner demons of childhood. Larry Cohen’s cult curio It’s Alive! interpreted the pronoun more directly: That’s the picture about the sweet infant who transforms into a mutant monster, offering a blunt attack on pharmaceutical overprescription. The recent It Follows, a masterpiece of creeping dread, conjured a supernatural force that terrorizes a woman after a carnal encounter, serving as a chastening metaphor for unsafe sex.
With It Comes at Night, the grim and unshakable second feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, the title subject is once again an ephemeral, unnamed scourge, though at the expense of quibbling over minutiae, it doesn’t seem to particularly favor the night. Like nuclear radiation, it seems ever-present in the spores of a decaying world, ready at any time to invade and destroy.
The vast majority of It Comes at Night is set in a self-sustaining homestead in a remote forest, where Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) eke out a minimal existence off the grid. That’s because there is no grid: It’s been recently wiped out, along with much of humanity, as an extremely contagious pandemic has swept across the fruited plain. Anyone infected must be swiftly killed and burned, and in the unsettling opening sequence, Paul and his family, clad in gas masks, do just this to Paul’s lesion-covered father.
This is presently matter-of-factly, manipulating us only with a nerve-tingling score full of deathly industrial percussion. Shults ensures that sentiment, unlike the horrible it, is never allowed to penetrate his narrative. This film is spare and brutal, a kind of backwoods Cormac McCarthy.
The movie also harkens back to Night of the Living Dead, a similarly grisly survival story in which a clutch of humans face down an existential threat waiting just outside their rattling deadbolts. Whether it’s zombies or disease, it is just the catalyst for a meditation on paranoia, mistrust and the faults of man.
These ideas rise to the surface in the person of Will (Christopher Abbott), an intruder on Paul’s property. A rare healthy survivor in a landscape of the sick and the dead, he mistook the cabin for an abandoned dwelling. He’s in dire need of supplies to bring to his own family, beseeching Paul for help. Against his better judgment, and at the urging of Sarah, Paul agrees to open his home to Will, wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).
For Travis, a sensitive and budding teenager prone to eavesdropping on adult conversations through the paper-thin floorboards of his attic perch, the introduction of the comely Kim provides the character, and the movie, an unexpected undertone of psychosexual frustration. It’s one of the ways Shults presents a dynamic of agonizing isolation and twists it, like a knife: From Travis’ perspective, it seems the only thing worse than a world bereft of physical companionship is the perpetual proximity to an untouchable form of it.
It Comes at Night’s politics are on shakier ground, at least for audiences searching for subtext in a punishing genre picture. As a cautionary tale, Shults’ film so values the I over the we — the individual over the collective — that it almost functions as propaganda for Ayn Randian ideology, occupying a place on the curiously sizable shelf of conservative horror films.
But I won’t soon forget the mystery and menace of It Comes at Night — its lantern-lit spookiness and nightmarish visions. The fact that it embraces any point of view and sees it all the way through to its uncompromising conclusion is bold, and warrants respect. Desperate times yield desperate measures and desperate films, and It Comes at Night is a shot across the bow of our divided ship.
IT COMES AT NIGHT. Director: Trey Edward Shults; Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbot, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough; Distributor: A24; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at most area theaters