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Front Page - Friday, June 16, 2017

‘It Comes at Night’ comes as a pleasant surprise

The title of “It Comes at Night” is a clever bit of misdirection.

I spent most of the film waiting for something to emerge from the shadows and claim victims. But the horror of the film comes not from without but from within.

“It Comes” opens with a restrained but arresting image: an old man, covered in sores, his eyes looking unnatural, something dripping out of his mouth.

A woman in the room with him is crying, telling him to let go. She calls him “grandfather.” Her gloves and gas mask suggest she’s trying to avoid catching acting whatever has taken hold of him.

The woman’s husband and son take the wheezing man outside in a wheelbarrow. The surrounding forest seems to go on forever.

Writer and director Trey Edward Shults never lifts the camera above the trees to show how far this family is from civilization, but after the husband shoots his father-in-law, dumps his corpse in a hole in the ground and sets it on fire, I gathered that a plague had pushed them far from whatever is left of mankind.

The clues come slowly, like a folded piece of paper that reveals another clue each time it’s opened. Not knowing kept my curiosity stoked, and at one point I noticed I was learning forward in my seat.

The father, Paul, has established rules for how the household is run and is an insistent-but-not-overbearing leader. Actor Joel Edgerton, who was very good in last year’s “The Gift,” could have played him like a hardcore survivalist, but that’s not how Shults wrote him.

Rather, Paul is a good man who cares about his wife and son and is doing what he believes he must to provide for and protect them.

But there are shadows within him, just as there are shadows in the house and woods. Shults shoots with a wide lens, even within the confines of the home, to emphasize the darkness and wrap his characters within it.

Another family enters the picture. At this point, I’ll say no more about the story – except that I admired how skillfully Shults tells it. He never hurries to get to the next scene, yet the film is never boring. The tension continually builds through unresolved conversations, wary glances and other subtle devices, and he lets the characters reveal what’s going on instead of having someone explain.

I especially like how Shults uses many of the tropes of horror films to serve a story that winds up being something else altogether. The threat of a flesh-eating disease that will kill anyone it touches, frightful sounds coming from the woods or behind closed doors and characters walking through darkness, carrying only a lantern create expectations Shults then subverts.

Gripped with uncertainty, I had no choice but to join the characters on their inexorable march to what could hardly be a happy ending.

I’m torn about the film’s final scene, though. The credits come unexpectedly and left me staring at the screen in silent disbelief. Perhaps the film doesn’t end so much as reveal its final bit of truth and then fades to black, leaving you alone with your thoughts, looking for shadows within yourself.

“It Comes at Night” joins a number of films this year that transcend their small scale to be as absorbing as any big budget thriller. “The Wall” was one, and “Split” was another. As with those movies, I never felt like I was watching a bargain-basement effort; I just felt sucked in.

I knew nothing about “It Comes at Night” going in. I hadn’t even seen a trailer. All I knew was it wasn’t “The Mummy,” which I had no desire to see. I feel a little sorry for you because, by reading this review, you know more than I did. I’ve opened several of the folds in my attempt to portray the film as a minor act of brilliance.

I recommend it despite my indecision about the ending. It’s an exceptional psychological thriller that kept my eyes glued to the screen and my thoughts engaged long after I left the theater. Or you could see “The Mummy” and leave dumber than before.

Three stars out of four