‘It Comes At Night’ is tension-filled, minimalist horror masterpiece

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After producing a slew of award-winning films including “Moonlight” and “Room”, A24 has become a powerhouse of indie cinema — just the flash of its logo before its latest horror flick “It Comes At Night” is a seeming guarantor of quality.

After all, A24 is the production company behind “The Witch” and “Under the Skin” — prime examples of horror’s ability to induce nightmares while embracing innovative art-house elements. As such, expectations were understandably high for “It Comes At Night,” and thankfully, the film rises to those expectations and then some.

The film imagines a post-apocalyptic near-future where the threat of disease has driven Paul (the ever-reliable Joel Edgerton) and his family into the woods, where strict precautions and isolation offer relative safety. “We never go out at night,” Paul futilely warns. When a desperate family seeks refuge in Paul’s house, however, initial goodwill soon turns to insidious paranoia.

The plot of the film is simple: A bad situation becomes worse. But how the film reaches its climactic disaster is a master class in relentlessly escalating tension, a credit to writer and director Trey Edward Shults, now fully embracing the horror elements that made his debut, “Krisha,” so wonderful.

The pacing of Shults’ script is impeccable — though the epitome of a slow burn, there’s a white-knuckle fluidity to the series of wrong turns that result in the film’s devastating third act. Though only 97 minutes long, the film feels much more robust — one assumes that so much tension would demand at least two hours.

Aside from the film’s taut pacing, “It Comes At Night” derives its tension from Drew Daniels’ masterful cinematography. The camera consistently lingers a few frames longer than expected, creating an uneasiness exacerbated by its haunting subjects — a red door, an uprooted tree and a 16th-century painting are all terrifying in Daniels’ hands. And of course, the long, creepy hallway that made the first trailer so intriguing is used to maximum effect in the film.

The film’s regular descents into dream sequences also establish a creeping sense of dread. Paul’s son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is haunted by nightmares which add spine-tingling, grotesque details to the film. In a film mostly governed by restraint, Shults cuts loose during such sequences — and more importantly, establishes an eerie ambiguity.

The audience only knows as much as Travis does — a credit to Harrison Jr’s nuanced performance — so we aren’t sure if the nightmares offer foreshadowing or just a good jump scare. We’re left in the dark, which opens the floodgates for the film’s infectious paranoia to creep offscreen, and into us. Ultimately, Shults’ script and Daniels’ visuals result in a film where the only release from its tension is the final fade to black.

Aside from Edgerton and Harrison Jr., Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough and Christopher Abbott bring complex characters to life in such a way that we sympathize with them, despite some of their questionable choices — the film relies more on characters than plot, a powerful technique many genre films have forgotten.

Yet the film’s greatest strength is that the experience doesn’t actually end with the collective sigh of relief that accompanies the credit roll. Shults’ writing and the incredible performances combine to establish layers of subtlety that give validity to multiple interpretations of the film. “It Comes At Night” demands to be seen in a packed theater with several friends.

Of course, perfect films are elusive, and “It Comes At Night” is no different. Relationships between certain characters are set up but left unexplored. Still, minor unresolved plot threads don’t detract from the film’s tension, nor should they discourage any viewer from seeking it out in theaters.

Well-written, superbly acted and masterfully made films that push the boundaries of genre are a rare thing these days, and deserve the support of audiences, even if they leave you wide awake come nightfall.

“It Comes At Night” opens Thursday at California Theatre in Berkeley.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].