For all the critical slaughter the horror genre as a whole receives, there’s been a rise in horror films that garner critical acclaim this decade. These films have found fresh ways to approach horror, subverting expectations and genre tropes – and audience expectations. The results have been fascinating to watch. Many of these films come from indie studios, and they’ve been more bold recently about releasing these films for wider audiences in theaters; in turn, the promotions for the film tend to follow more traditional marketing patterns, and when audiences come to see the film and get something they aren’t expecting, audiences have started turning on these films. Based on the crowd in my screening for It Comes at Night, I expect for a notable critic/audience divide to once again occur.
As the world becomes engulfed by an unnamed plague, Paul (Joel Edgerton) keeps his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) isolated in the woods. The family is on edge after just burying Sarah’s father when the virus made him ill. When a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break into the house one night while looking for supplies to help his own family, Paul ultimately invites Will to bring his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) into the house to pool resources. Still, Paul warns Travis against trusting the people they’ve let into their home.
Writer/director Trey Edward Shults, who made a family drama into something of a horror show with his debut, Krisha, smartly pulls a reversal of that trick here. What seems like a horror film is more suspenseful than anything. There’s a consistent feeling of doom that lingers over the film, particularly with the nature of the disease that’s wiping out humanity. There’s no attempt to explain what it is or how it’s spreading. It’s just a threat – one that makes life threatening even when it’s not directly affecting people.
That’s why horror audiences, who are primed for jump scares, may not care for the film. But for those willing to give it a chance, they’ll find a film that is far more unnerving than a traditional horror film.