“It Comes At Night”: Bleak, brooding horror film that’s hugely effective

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Trey Edwards Shults’ second feature is a hard watch but a good one. It’s the kind of horror film that, to paraphrase “Alice Isn’t Dead,” finds terror in defining the shape of a monster not in unending jump scares. So it’s my kind of horror movie and hey, I liked it!

In brief: Plague. Scarcity. Desperate families. Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live cooped up in a house in the woods, trying to steer clear of the inevitable apocalyptic madness. Travis’ grandfather just succumbed to the plague as well, so tensions are already high when Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough), and their little son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) arrive, exchanging goats and chickens for shelter and companionship.

Naturally, things start to get weird, as they always do in desperate times. The families cohabitate as peacefully as they can but can never escape the need to think of themselves first—you never know during a plague, after all. This dynamic—heck, the whole premise—could have easily been overplayed, and to be honest I was worried when I first started hearing about this film. Shults’ debut feature “Krisha” is a very different film; loud, bright, vibrating and obviously deeply personal—you really can’t be clearer than casting your family in a movie about your family—but I wondered how that empathy would translate in a second film.

Props to him because “It Comes At Night” holds strong in the humanity department and is just as personal as “Krisha.” Thus, Shults doesn’t get hung up on the end-of-times instincts, instead making room for minor skirmishes and awkward opportunities; Will and Paul butt heads trying to be “Mr. Manly Man,” Travis totally has a thing for Kim and she might kinda be into it, and everybody wants to be friends but may not know how. I was particularly touched by a short scene in which Travis hides in the attic listening to Will and Kim joke with each other in bed, quietly giggling along with them. Invasive, but truthful and revealing, right? Shults has a good grasp on these kinds of moments and knows how to leave space for them, which elevates the film to something that feels earned.

And that’s important, earning your story, earning your humanity, especially in a film as dreary as this one. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say I can imagine a movie in which I hated it, in which the despair of its conclusion felt cheap and hollow. “It Comes At Night” could have been that movie but Shults guides us through the trauma of his characters well enough to at least give us insight into that devastation. (I still feel icky about it but that’s my need for optimism’s fault, not the film’s.)

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See “It Comes At Night,” and see it in a theater for maximum effect. It’s bleak, tense and effective, and worth all it’s bad feels for that.

Grade: A-

Verdict: Trey Edward Shults goes full horror in his bleak second feature, and it’s worth all the dreariness and pessimism.