It Comes at Night is a horror film and I can’t say horror is my favourite genre. In fact, as far as I can see, I haven’t reviewed a horror film since 2009 (Paranormal Activity; scared the bejeezus out of me). But I’d read that this was clever, engrossing and original, so why not? My bejeezus can take it once every eight years, surely. So we were braced, my bejeezus and I, but rather unnecessarily, as it turned out. This is not especially scary (thankfully, but even so) and, what is more, the storytelling is so spare that I never understood what ‘it’ was and whether it did come at night or at any other time. Mid-afternoon, say.
The film is written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, whose 2016 breakthrough film, Krisha, was terrific (look it up). This, I had further read, shows ‘a defiant disregard for modern horror tropes’. True, there are no shuffling dead people, or bumps in the night that turn out to be just the cat, but the action is all set Deep In The Woods, so, hello? Here, we find a family who have barricaded themselves into an isolated house — again: hello? — with boarded-up windows and two locked front doors. First one, then the other. Sinister. There’s a father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), a mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jnr), and as the film opens we hear them heavily breathing through gas masks while tending to an old man who is puking blood and covered in suppurating black boils, which is never good. He is Sarah’s father, whom Paul shoots in the head before dragging the body deeper into the deep woods where the corpse is incinerated. Bye, Grandpa.
This, we quickly understand, is a world that’s been ravaged by a horrendous and highly contagious disease that has left few survivors. (And this is new? No, says the person who is ill acquainted with this genre but still knows a well-worn, post-apocalyptic scenario when she sees one; no flies on her.)
As for the survivors, life’s no picnic as they manage limited food resources while guarding against infection. Then there is a bump in the middle of the night, which isn’t the cat (at least) but is someone who has broken through the first door and is behind the second. The intruder, it turns out, is a father (Christopher Abbott) in search of supplies for his own family. Or so he says. They tie him to a tree for 24 hours, just to ensure that he isn’t diseased, then collect his wife (Riley Keough) and little boy, so they can all join forces. But still: can this other family be trusted?
This is mostly told through Travis’s eyes. He is our watchful, near-silent protagonist. We see what he sees as the families seem to bond, at least initially. We also experience his nightmares, which we don’t know are nightmares until we suddenly cut to him sitting bolt-upright in bed, panting and sweating (as you do in films). There is mounting dread, as accompanied by mounting-dread music, but the jump scares, such as they are, all happen within the dream sequences, which feels like a cheat somehow.
The best scene by far happens when Travis can’t sleep and wanders downstairs to find Keough’s character at the kitchen table. God knows how long he’s been cooped up for, as we’re told so little, but here’s a woman who isn’t his mum, and the scene crackles with sexual tension. Where is this going, you wonder. Might Travis, who has been so frustratingly passive thus far, actually do something? Swap family allegiances? But it goes absolutely nowhere. It’s all simply allowed to peter away, as so much is. The film throws many ideas at the wall — patriarchal rivalry; maternal jealousies; how far you should go to save your own family — but none of them ever sticks.
The performances are all strong, but how anyone can say this doesn’t bolt headlong into all the usual horror clichés, I don’t know. There is even a pet dog that goes out and doesn’t come back (for a good while, anyway). As for ‘it’, there’s the matter of an open door, but if that was ‘it’, what was it? No idea. But most damningly, it did not scare the bejeezus out of me. I checked and double-checked, but it stayed put throughout.