“It Comes at Night” sounds like a grade-Z zombie movie, but it’s actually Step 2 in what may turn out to be a singular movie career. The last we heard from writer-director Trey Edward Shults — which was also the first we’d heard — was “Krisha” (2016), an autobiographical drama of family dysfunction that accomplished miracles on a budget of gas money and crackers.
When your micro-indie gets great reviews and even recoups its cost, what do you do next? Some filmmakers would go to Hollywood and sign up for a genre movie, and on the surface, that’s what Shults has done here. “It Comes at Night” is set just after the apocalypse, and it concerns a family surviving deep in the woods, afraid of what’s out there in the dark. We are cued to expect demons at the door, which is locked and bolted. Instead, Shults suggests the demons are already inside, in his characters’ heads.
What exactly has happened remains a mystery. As is made clear in a distressing opening scene, people got sick and died, fast, and the contagion is still swirling about. In a fortified cabin in the middle of nowhere live a father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), a mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Paul has rules for everything. It’s why the family is still alive.
Shults sets up the situation with confidence and a minimum of dialogue, and then he introduces his wild cards: an intruder, Will (Christopher Abbott), who turns out to have a wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and a toddler named Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). When Paul warily invites this second family to move in, it’s a pivotal metaphoric moment: Will civilization now start to rebuild itself? Or is the center of humanity truly no longer holding?
“It Comes at Night” isn’t much more than a padded-out “Twilight Zone” idea, and at different times it may remind you of a threadbare suspense cheapie from the early ’70s or one of M. Night Shyamalan’s post-“Sixth Sense” whangdoodles. What is Shults up to here, stretching out the dread until he risks our boredom, perversely holding back on the jolts any horror audience has a right to expect?
In fact, he’s doing what he did in “Krisha,” subjecting a family unit to intense psychological pressures to see who will crack and when. The only difference is that the agent of destruction is no longer an alcoholic aunt looking to settle scores but an airborne vector that has made paranoia go viral. The characters are kept continually off-kilter, and so are we. Is something out there in the dark? Is Paul a figure of harsh but loving common sense, or is he an Ahab in the making? Does his son represent hope for the future or is he just a teenager with hormones spilling out in the wrong directions? And the other family — what are they hiding?
The cast is fine; Edgerton in particular conveys the survivalist that Paul is now and the history professor he was once. But this is Shults’s show, and he keeps “It Comes at Night” unbearably taut until the breaking point has to come and does. In this he’s abetted (as in “Krisha”) by an unsettling and original sound design that works on our nerves and sometimes just below the threshold of hearing.
He’s very much a craftsman, but to what end? “It Comes at Night” introduces further mysteries while withholding most of the answers, and I’m not giving much away by saying that even the nature of “It” in the title remains murky to the last. The final scenes are both ambiguous and terrifying, and they left a preview audience as shaken as any I’ve seen. I had the distinct feeling, though, that a lot of them wouldn’t be recommending the movie to their friends. It gets very far under the skin.
“It Comes at Night” seems, in short, to be exactly the movie Trey Shults wanted to make, for better and for worse. Which is why it will be fascinating to see what he makes next.
IT COMES AT NIGHT
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 95 minutes. R (violence, disturbing images, language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.