How Scary Is It Comes at Night?

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Joel Edgerton in It Comes at Night. Photo: A24

Last year, A24 landed a major hit with its haunting period thriller The Witch. The movie premiered at Sundance, and earned Robert Eggers the festival’s top directing prize. It delivered a solid financial performance for a small-budget property, and landed at or near the top of many year-end best of horror lists (including the No. 1 spot in Vulture’s own 2016 roundup.) Alongside titles like It Follows and The Babadook, The Witch has since become a standard-bearer for the current era of prestige horror, and A24 is so keen to repeat its success that it’s rolling out a new thriller that feels like an emotional companion to last year’s fear-what’s-in-the-woods hit.

It Comes at Night is the studio’s latest eerie art-house offering, and it takes a lot of cues from what made The Witch so successful: It, too, features an isolated family in the heart of an ominous forest and focuses its drama on what happens when paranoia starts to dissolve the social contract. Director Trey Edward Shults goes big on mood for his sophomore feature, and creates an intimate, immersive world in which to dismember any sense of hope for all ye who would enter the theater. But is it effective? Here now is an investigation of the central question: Just how scary is It Comes at Night?

First of all, did I see Joel Edgerton in the trailer?
You did. After turning creepy for The Gift in 2015, Edgerton delivers another disarming performance here. You also might have noticed Christopher Abbott, otherwise known as Charlie from Girls, and Riley Keough, of Girlfriend Experience fame. This is only the second movie from Shults, but his debut, 2015’s Krisha, is an excellent drama as well.

What is this movie actually about? The trailers leave it pretty vague.
A slowly unfolding mystery is really the entire point of It Comes at Night, but it won’t spoil your experience to know that the movie focuses on a family — a husband (Edgerton), wife, their teenage child, and briefly a grandfather — living in an isolated cabin in the woods, who have fortified their home against invaders both human and nonhuman (whatever that may mean). The relative stability of their compound is disrupted when a drifter (Abbott) breaks into the house seeking food and water for himself, his wife (Keough), and their little boy. From there, it becomes a tense war between honoring social norms and surrendering to a brutal state of nature.

The trailers also look really intense, and imply there might be zombies. Is this another zombie movie?
This is an important question. While the trailers for It Comes at Night are great, they are also pretty misleading. Still, it’s hard to blame A24; this is a tough movie to sell outright. The trailers imply a deadly urgency, when the whole story is actually an exercise in patience. It Comes at Night feels as much like a survival horror video game as it does a movie, which makes sense considering Shults credits The Last of Us as one of his major inspirations. If you show up expecting structured scares and pulse-pounding action, you will be disappointed. Better to expect your whole body to slowly tense up, and maybe to dig your nails into your hands till they bleed. The first half of the first teaser trailer is probably your most honest look at what to expect.

Sounds good. Is it actually scary, though?
I’ll put it this way: It Comes at Night is a feel-bad movie. It’s about mood and dread and the terror of wondering how far you’d go to survive after the apocalypse. Shults’s best accomplishment might be that he makes viewers their own worst enemy — your paranoia is a more powerful engine of fear than whatever is happening onscreen. And the whole thing is beautifully shot: The abundant shadows almost become characters unto themselves as you wonder what might be hiding within them. Just don’t expect to scream your way through this one. The truly frightening prospect is just how hopeless you’re likely to feel by the time it ends.

Do you have any recommendations for similar movies?
The 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a similarly relentless rumination on what happens after the apocalypse, and it makes the similar move of dropping you into a terrible place without any exposition to guide you along. Another movie that will play with your perception of protagonists and antagonists is the excellent German movie Goodnight Mommy from 2015. There is also, of course, The Witch, for a highly art-directed horror about what dangers lie in the woods.

How Scary Is It Comes at Night?