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“It Comes at Night” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

 

“It Comes at Night,” the sophomore effort from indie writer/director Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha”), is a highly ambiguous narrative, operating well-within the vast boundaries of psychological horror. So ambiguous, in fact, the lack of pertinent information acquired by the viewer (concerning what leads up to the events tackled within) undoubtedly works to the film’s advantage. We meet a family, in a house in the middle of nowhere, battling an unknown force which will leave audiences the task of postulating its identity, long after the film has ended. There’s no denying that this is indeed the horror film to beat for 2017, and most impressive is its ability to cause people to walk away from it and likely have a different idea of what they’ve just witnessed than the person sitting next to them.

     Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo portray Paul and Sarah, a married couple in an unidentified, post-apocalyptic landscape, who have just buried the latter’s father. When I say buried, I mean that he was wrapped, thrown in a hole and set on fire. The sores that adorned the dead man’s body confirm that something quite deadly has consumed him, and this is only further accentuated by his family’s use of gas masks and protective clothing. This loss dramatically affects Paul and Sarah’s teenage son Travis (played by New Orleans’ own Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who is plagued by reality-blurring nightmares which have him coughing up pools of blood, waking up to horrifying lesions on his body, and receiving visits from his dead grandfather. As if Paul and Sarah don’t have enough to deal with, the advent of an intruder (Christopher Abbott of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”) searching for water to provide sustenance to his wife (Riley Keough) and young son, turns into a band of new houseguests for the weary family.

     To say that our original family’s applecart is upset may be an understatement, but they certainly try to be the accommodating hosts. And for a while, it appears as if the new family is just what these people need in this ungodly wasteland that they have inherited. These scenes reminded me a great deal of the exploitation classic “Panic in Year Zero.” The family in that film were in the very same survival mode, yet they unknowingly yearned for the company of other people. The only difference is due to the ongoing reality of the Cold War, audiences in 1962 were horrified by the very real possibility of a post-Nuclear America. But, as for “It Comes at Night,” we have absolutely no idea what is afflicting these individuals, or even how it came to pass. Because we aren’t exactly exemplary judges of what this family has been through, we must believe that Paul knows what’s best for his wife and son’s survival, and when tensions are inevitably aroused between these two clans, it becomes painfully clear that Paul must protect the sanctity of his home, at any cost.

     With its seemingly short 91-minute running time, “It Comes at Night” is devoid of filler and it will have you debating its merits for days, and trust me, that’s a good thing. Unlike so many run-of-the-mill horror films, the jump-scares are non-existent, “shaky head” syndrome is nowhere to be found, and like me, you’ll realize that this is what is known as a smart horror film. With nods to some of the all-time great viral thrillers, films such as George Romero’s “The Crazies” and Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever,” and more than a passing resemblance to Larry Buchanan’s 1967 cheapie, “In the Year 2889,” you’ll be surprised to learn that this film also contains elements of the claustrophobic character interplay of George Stevens’ magnificent “The Diary of Anne Frank.” As I said, this is smart horror. A film that doesn’t show its hand, but rather preys upon the psychological ramifications of a populace that has to imagine what life would entail in the event of an outbreak, and the exhausting outlook of long-term survival where burying your dead isn’t a possibility, it’s a guarantee.

***1/2 (three-and-a-half-out-of-four stars)

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