Anyone expecting the movie “It Comes at Night” to live up — or, rather, to live down — to the cheesy promise of its name, which hints at the kind of nocturnal boogeyman who has haunted so many horror films before it, must be unfamiliar with the work of its writer and director, Trey Edward Shults.
That’s not surprising, given that Shults’s only previous feature, “Krisha,” was not widely seen, despite garnering several nominations and awards. With that 2015 debut, about an addict (Krisha Fairchild) attempting to reconnect with her estranged relatives, Shults demonstrated a flair for intense psychological confrontation, one that he puts into powerful new service in this work.
“It Comes at Night” will feel familiar to fans of post-apocalyptic thrillers. Set in an isolated home after some sort of plague appears to have wiped out much of humanity, the movie focuses on the relationship between two groups of survivors: Paul, his wife and their 17-year-old son (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and the family they have welcomed, reluctantly, into their fortified refuge from contagion. The second family also features three people: Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife (Riley Keough) and their son (Griffin Robert Faulkner), all of whom appear to be free from whatever disease that has ravaged the world.
But these two camps know little about each other, and the disease kills rapidly and without warning. Much of the film takes place at night, when doubt, fear, nightmares and paranoia can be their most corrosive.
Two of the characters — Paul’s teenage son and Will’s sexy wife — suffer from insomnia. One of their scenes together crackles with sexual tension, of the sort that takes on new dimensions of danger, given that the method of the disease’s transmission is unclear.
Paul has already shown himself to be impulsive, setting up a situation in which mistrust metastasizes into something more terrible. For much of its brisk running time, “It Comes at Night” teeters between delicious atmosphere and almost unbearable tension.
That may not be enough for viewers who expect the kind of payoff that often is accompanied by screaming and bloodshed in this sort of film.
There’s plenty of mayhem at the climax. But the “it” that ultimately materializes, out of the movie’s shadows, may not be what you have been led to fear, even though it will be instantly, chillingly recognizable.
‘It Comes at Night’
Rated R for violence, disturbing images and strong language. 1:37. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.