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‘It Comes at Night’ Review: Horror Inside and Out

An old man stares blankly under the unsettling gaze of three people wearing gas-masks; they say their goodbyes, encourage him to just let go, and then end his life with what appears to be merciful intent, before setting him alight. In It Comes at Night, only the second feature from director Trey Edward Shults, there are no easy answers, only tantalising hints. At this stage the movie could spin off in any number of directions. None of them good.

The main characters consist of Paul, a grizzly woodsman-type played by Joel Edgerton, his wife Sarah and their teenage son, Travis. They live together in a boarded-up house hidden deep inside a forest. One night they encounter an interloper, Will, and after a confrontation, Paul agrees to help him recover his own family, who are also hiding within the forest. They find them and move in together. Strength in numbers.

And yet the threat that has brought them together, while ever-present, remains unnamed. When Paul and Will go outside, their eyes dart from tree to tree, as behind each trunk could be hidden… whatever lurks out there. Paul’s son, Travis, has vivid and disturbing dreams that suggest premonition, and draws strange charcoal drawings. In this way, the movie creates a creeping sense of terror without giving us anything to be terrified about, except the unknown. We spend the movie waiting for the big reveal, while wondering if it will ever come.

Ultimately the revelation of the movie is that however scary whatever’s out there may be, it’s nothing compared to the horror going on inside the house, as the initial harmony between the two families is exploded by fear and paranoia. As much as It Comes at Night is a horror movie in the truest sense, it is also a subtle and disturbing piece of psychological horror, as it depicts the depths of cruelty that men (and women) will stoop to in times of extreme crisis, in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.

The movie is by turns shot in bleak and vibrant tones, both of which convey threat in their own way, so that one almost strains to see the unnamed evil just outside the circle of torchlight, or just behind that leafy tree. The woods haven’t been this scary since some silly amateur filmmakers stumbled across the Blair Witch all those years ago. While the soundtrack is a jarring atonal nightmare.

Then there’s Joel Edgerton, who adds to the incredible tension as he delivers another masterclass in understated acting, playing a decent man, who will stoically take any measures necessary to keep his wife and son alive. In a sense, he is both the hero and the monster of this film.

It Comes at Night certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. It poses far more questions than it answers, and may leave some movie goers unsatisfied,  their commonplace expectations left unmet. But what it gives instead is so much richer, bleaker and sadly truer to life. And if that wasn’t enough, the movie is so rivetingly scary that you’re liable to scratch the upholstery off the arms of the chair you’re sitting on the edge of.