No false promises in the title: It Comes at Night comes right at you, leaving you unnerved, maybe even a little unhinged – and completely exhilarated. You want horror that screws with your head? This is your ticket. It's the work of Trey Edward Shults, a writer-director whose 2016 indie debut feature, Krisha, was shot for practically nothing in his parents' house in Texas, with his family members and himself cast in key roles. More importantly, it showed the seeds of a talent ready to spread its wings – the kind of young artist who could make a personal drama so intense it would make John Cassavetes flinch.
His sophomore film goes a different route. It's a genre film, and on the surface, it walks and talks a zombie game. There's a virus going around, the kind that wipes out most of civilization, though one family stands alone. Joel Edgerton (also the executive producer) excels as Paul, a former history teacher who is now the rifle-toting protector of his house in the woods. His wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), is with him, along with their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and – in what may be a Kubrick homage – a dog called Stanley. Nothing remarkable there, except for the way the patriarch deals with folks who get infected with puss-leaking sores. Sarah's father is a textbook example: The beloved old man is sick, so Paul shoots him then torches the corpse. Nothing personal. It's a survival method.
Scarefests from Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead have covered this territory, but not like Shults does. He digs inside, trying to understand how a family unit adapts to postapocalyptic pressure. They keep their gas masks on and they keep their defenses up. Then, at night, a stranger comes. He's Will (Christopher Abbott), a man who claims he's not sick; he's just scouting for food and water to help his wife and young son. Naturally suspicious, Paul drags Will outside like he's a one-man Homeland Security team, tying him to a tree and grilling him relentlessly. Once he's persuaded that Will's story checks out persuaded, Paul collects Will's wife Kim (a tangy, terrific Riley Keough) and their toddler son, inviting the three of them to live with his clan – one big happy, paranoid family behind that bolted red door.
That's the setup – almost no backstory, just razor-sharp tension that cuts to the quick. Some of it is erotic, as Travis spies on the new couple going at it and dreams of Kim getting on top of him ... with black vomit dripping from her mouth. Sex and death become inseparable. Infection lurks just outside the walls. With the help of Drew Daniels' darkly evocative cinematography, Shults does wonders, especially during the climactic standoff when no one in this house of psychological horrors trusts the other. When survival is everything, does humanity go out the window and take morality with it? That's the scary-timely theme that animates this harrowing and haunting film. It truly will keep you up at night.