The elements are so familiar they’re almost comforting. A cabin in the middle of the woods. A group of nerve-rattled folks who’ve barricaded themselves inside. The dread of invaders who carry a plague that spreads on contact. Look closely — has the person next to you become one of the infected and the doomed? It’s the stuff of a thousand zombie movies (or foaming-virus movies), and “It Comes at Night” succeeds in conjuring a tense survivalist atmosphere redolent of the walking dead and the desperate living. The film uses the pitch black of night, lit by flashlights (no cheating!), and does so with a nightmare finesse that’s reminiscent, at times, of “The Blair Witch Project.”
For all that, where’s the novelty, the thing that makes this movie different? It is this: “It Comes at Night” feels as though it could be a supernatural horror film, but it isn’t. It’s not about zombies or any other sort of humanoid creature rising up from the dead; the mysterious disease at its center is presented in low-key realistic terms, as an actual illness, without one scene of a TV newscaster breathlessly reporting the apocalypse. The movie is a close-quarters psychological thriller built artfully and honestly, from the ground up, with more of a nod to early John Carpenter than mid-period Danny Boyle.
In theory, I applaud the existence of a movie like this one, and “It Comes at Night” is a good, tight, impressive little exercise. I was held by it, but the movie, while tense and absorbing, is ultimately a tad forgettable, because it thinks it’s up to more than it is. This is the second feature written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, who became an instant critics’ darling with his first film, last year’s “Krisha,” a high-wire autobiographical psychodrama that took a dizzying plunge into the vortex of addiction. Following “Krisha” with a thriller was the right move — it’s Shults proving his chops — but the characters in “It Comes at Night,” while well-written and acted, never attain what the filmmaker appears to be aiming for, which is an existence dramatic enough to transcend the genre-movie fix they’re in.
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Taken as B-movie characters, however, they pop just enough. Joel Edgerton (who’s the film’s executive producer), hidden under a husky beard, is terse and minimal as Paul, who owns the woodland house in which the film is set. He’s holed up there with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), as well as their mangy mutt, Stanley. That this is a mixed-race family, and that the fact is never once alluded to (or played upon), seems like progress, though I got the impression that Shults thought he was saying something by not saying anything, the way George A. Romero did when he chose a black hero for “Night of Living Dead” without making reference to it.
In the opening scene, Paul drags a body riddled with plague sores — but still alive — out into the yard, and proceeds to shoot it dead and set it aflame with gasoline and a flair. It is Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), the family’s first victim, and a warning of how grisly this disease can get. Paul has put a rigid set of rules in place (the meticulous wearing of gas masks; only one door can be used, and it’s bolted at all times), so when someone tries to break in during the middle of the night, the whole family is understandably spooked. But it’s just Will (Christopher Abbott), a husband and father looking for water and shelter for his own small clan.
Paul, figuring that there’s safety in numbers, invites Will to stay in the house along with his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and toddler son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), and this throwing together of two three-person families creates a pressure cooker of camaraderie and mistrust that’s the real essence of the movie. The slowly brewing stand-off between Paul and Will is a situation that Polanski or Peckinpah would have mined for intensity, though Shults stages it with a touchy-feely millennial empathy. He sees the good in everyone, which isn’t always good for a movie’s interior hum.
That said, he’s an instinctive filmmaker with the ability to make scenes taut and cinematic, even though the action rarely leaves the cabin. The house is almost literally roomy, divided into chambers that only make it feel more claustrophobic, and with an attic that’s ready-made for spying. As soon as Will’s family are settled into their bedroom, Kelvin goes up there to listen in on them, which is presented (mostly) as adolescent curiosity, though he does have a horny crush on Kim, played by the magnetic Riley Keough as a wholesome hippie earth mother (you almost can’t believe that this is the same actress who portrayed the viciously controlling vagabond-youth leader in “American Honey”). That’s one example of how the movie plants dramatic seeds that don’t fully pay off.
To give away more would just step on the film’s tiny humanist fragments of suspense. “It Comes at Night,” despite its Roger Corman title, isn’t an outrageous dark ride in a confined space, like “10 Cloverfield Lane.” It sticks to the rules it sets up, and it presents itself as less a freak-out than a tragedy. It deserves to find an audience, and likely will, though it’s possible that portions of that audience will turn on the movie for the very thing that’s good about it: its refusal to go over-the-top.