Judging by his last film (2016’s “Krisha”) it wasn’t much of a stretch for Trey Edward Shults to make a horror movie next. While ostensibly about a former addict returning home for one tumultuous Thanksgiving, the unsettling score and swooping, tight camera moves gave it the feeling of a tense horror movie. Even more surprising was how well he managed that tension using his own house, family members (most notably his aunt, Krisha Fairchild), and even himself.
Now, with “It Comes At Night,” Shults gains a larger budget and more well-known actors, but doesn’t skimp on the psychological tension or the creep factor. It may not have the jump scares, but like fellow A24 alum “It Follows,” it’s a masterclass in tension and atmosphere.
Taking place on a secluded house in an undetermined city, “It Comes At Night” opens in the aftermath of some unknown cataclysm. The exact cause never detailed: there are whispers of a sickness that appears to cause boils. In the first few minutes, it claims the life of David, the grandfather of a small interracial family consisting of Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Shults takes time to carefully lay out the world, but never flashes back or pauses the story to give additional detail. We know as much about the world as the characters do, and he trusts the audience to pick up on the small details and get a handle of the danger. This also has the benefit of significantly cutting down on clutter, so the initiating conflicts occur within the first few scenes.
That conflict comes in the form of Will (Christopher Abbott) as he attempts to break into their house to get supplies for his family. A couple of tense interactions later, and soon his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young child Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) are guests. From here, Shults makes the subtle choice of turning the film into a quiet, observational drama.
Of course, it’s one in which there is only one singular red door leading outside (a recurring symbol through Travis’ many nightmares), in addition to the aura of cautious trust. Looming over the whole affair is the score by Brian McOmber; while not as experimental as his score for “Krisha,” his work here still gets the atmosphere across. It anchors every nighttime trek through the house, building up the tension effectively.
Continuing the trend from “Krisha,” Shults wrings strong performances out of his more experienced cast. Abbott and Keough (an A24 alum herself) hold their own against Edgerton and Ejogo, each character projecting their distrust at the new situation, but also slowly warming up. We can see how each and every character really does care about each other, and they trust us to read their expressions to tell what they’re feeling. From time to time, “It Comes At Night” may slip into a dream sequence or thriller set piece, but at its heart is a very human story. Whatever Shults decides to do next, he’s certainly a director worth following.