I’ll never forget my first English class. I mean my first real English class. I’m
not talking about when your worn-out, second-career, elementary school teacher would ham-handedly thunk themes down before you like thick slabs of meat she oafishly hacked from the chapter you were assigned to read that day—of course, all while watching the seconds tick down until that precious moment when the bell would ring and she could hustle home to her hungry cats.

No. I’m talking about that high school English class with that one quirky teacher (shoutout to Mr. Gruber) who could have easily taught college courses but who was so passionate about teaching young people that he spent his career punching below his weight. The one whose syllabus was comprised entirely of books that at one point or another were banned for their content. The one who made you question everything while awakening in you the realization that you have the ability to craft your own answers to anything.

You know what I’m talking about—in that class, you read that one book (shoutout to The Catcher in the Rye) that taught you that what you thought you enjoyed reading was actually slop. That one book that made you crave works about the world as it truly is, in all its layered, changeable, and complicated glory. That one book that confusingly was nothing you expected to like, but everything you needed.

It Comes at Night takes me back to that freshman high school English class. I stepped into the theater thinking I knew which of many directions this film could take, thinking I’d love or hate it. What I didn’t expect is a deep breath of a film, a reset of what I understand about terror, and hopefully, a reset for the horror industry as well.

The plot of It Comes at Night is extremely straightforward. A family lives in the woods in a post-outbreak world where sickness spreads quickly and every precaution is justified. They come across a stranger and life gets complicated. They have to make some tough decisions, and although they all struggle to keep their moral compasses pointing due north, like any coming-of-age film, they soon realize that real life doesn’t allow you to plan for every contingency. It Comes at Night is by no means the first film to suggest that a good person backed into a corner can be more terrifying than the undead. However, never before have I seen the theme captured so masterfully.

If you think I’m being vague here, I am. Intentionally. Like the first time reading that book as a teenager, the less you know about the plot, the better. What you should know is that director Trey Edward Shults exposes the human condition in a truly horrifying way, without cheap scares or senseless gore. Instead, he coaxes you into empathizing with his raw, realistic characters, who seem to be making all the right choices. He artfully builds tension with nothing more than moving shadows, slow zooms, mounting drumbeats, and horror-heightening strings. He makes you uncomfortable, but not in the way most horror films do–by terrifying you into thinking you could be victimized in real life. No, instead, Shults makes you wonder if you could one day become the villain. That, dear readers, is truly next-level horror.

SpecialK Verdict: Like reading your favorite book for the first time, It Comes at Night is an exquisite, eye-opening, redefining, clean slate of a film. Check your assumptions at the door of the theater, and succumb to a new approach to horror filmmaking.

It Comes at Night opens Friday, June 9. 

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