It Comes at Night could be the title of a horror film, or of a pornographic parody of a horror film. In actuality, It Comes at Night is neither of these, though it's not above pretending that horror might be in the offing. And if you're willing to be flexible enough with definitions that a paranoiac psychodrama counts as "horror", I guess it even is, though I am very much not willing to be that flexible.

Disregarding the flagrant lies of the ad campaign and the destined-to-be-unsatisfied promise of its title, it's a bold game that writer-director Trey Edward Shults is up to. As a narrative machine, It Comes at Night works almost entirely through ellipsis and withholding. We're told virtually nothing at all, not even basic facts about the characters or setting; some of it is implied heavily enough that we can pick it up without much trouble, some can be guessed at. But suffice it to say that the setting is sometime after a horrible plague-like disease has torn across some portion of at least the North American continent, leaving only as survivors those individuals who were able toΒ  get far away from population centers, and set up in tiny little survival bands. And even that might not be enough: the tiny little band we meet at the start of the film is just a family of four, somewhere in the tens of miles away from any other human beings, and even that's not isolated enough for the oldest of the quartet, Bud (David Pendleton), to remain healthy. As the film begins, he's in the final hours of the fast-acting disease, with his daughter Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), son-in-law Paul (Joel Edgerton), and 17-year-old grandson Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) gathered around to kill him relatively quickly and painlessly before the symptoms grow too much.

Which is enough to tell us right off that no matter what extremes one goes to keep the sickness at bay - creating a homebrew airlock, ruthlessly maintaining a curfew on leaving the sealed-up house at night or without a gas mask - the sickness will come in. And that, in a nutshell, is what It Comes at Night wants to explore: that feeling of constant, tense alertness, of being paranoid in every moment that the slightest mistake might bring everything down around you. It's a movie about trying to outthink the end of the world, in a literal sense; in a more abstract sense, it's simply about the impossibility of keeping your loved ones truly safe, particularly when you let paranoia get the better of you.

And that's ultimately what happens: somehow, it's not worth hashing through all of it, the family picks up another trio: Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough), and their toddler son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families live in an uneasy dΓ©tente for a while: uneasy because Paul is plainly ready to throw them to the mercy of nature the instant anything goes even a tiny bit awry, and because Will and Kim know damn well that he means to do that. Making matters worse is the palpable sense that something is happening outside of just six people holed up against the plague that killed humanity: Travis keeps having vivid nightmare visions that suggest a presence just outside, waiting to come (at night, no less), and Bud's dog Stanley has taken to barking like mad at something in the surrounding forest that nobody can see.

And here is where I must take my leave of It Comes at Night. "Quietly hostile strangers forced into a closed-up house to ensure their mutual survival, except that said quiet hostility is going to ensure that at least some of them will die" is okay. I can get behind that. It's been done, of course - the absolute best possible version of It Comes at Night is still playing catch-up with Night of the Living Dead, a movie made with even fewer resources than this indie production, that still managed to have actual flesh-eating zombies & not just a hovering sense of dread. But Night of the Living Dead was a half-century ago, and while plenty of "quarreling survivors wait out the apocalypse in a house" movies have come out in the interim, there's always room for another one, if it's well done.

But It Comes at Night, see, the problem is that it just straight-up fucking cheats. Let's write-off Travis's visions. One of the subplots hanging around the movie is that he's having sexual fantasies about Kim, and he's 17, so let's go ahead and say that whatever happens from his perspective is just about hormones running wild. There's still the dog. There is still, in the most unambiguously real layer of the plot, some kind of "it" that's freaking out Stanley, and the movie completely doesn't care. The "it" of the title is paranoia and mistrust - for serious, full stop. Stanley's unseen foe is literally just something to give us a moment's frisson, and to allow A24 to cut one of the most unabashedly lying trailers I've ever seen. If I'm being completely uncharitable, it's also to permit Shults to make the kind of movie that uses "artful" ambiguity like a cudgel; the kind that loudly parades how much information it's not giving us, and then acts all smug and superior at the idea that some kind of audience might want answers, well that's just so plebeian, isn't it. If I'm being uncharitable, you understand. And however intentional all of this is, really just fuck the movie for wanting to have its art-horror cake and eat its haunted-woods cake too. The Witch got away with that. It Comes at Night ain't The Witch.

It's really quite a pity that the film ends up being such a hollow exercise, without even enough content to fill its sleek (and fast) 90-odd minutes, because large parts of it are really quite extraordinarily well done. There's not a wrong note in the acting, for one thing, and the shuttered house, a parody of domestic shelter, is a really great movie set (the film's production designer is Karen Murphy). Where it really, really shines is in the cinematography by Drew Daniels: he and Shults have gone all-out in using blackness to shape the very frame itself, to create suffocating negative space through the pure nothingness of unexposed darkness, the very opposite of cinema. It's the best I've seen this thing done since The Descent a decade ago and more, and it gets to a visceral fear of the dark that would be the most profoundly amazing stuff, if only the film were to, like, do something with it. And that, I think, is why I'm so salty over It Comes at Night subverting all the signals it gave me that it might end up being a horror film; it would have been a fucking good one.

Instead, it's a psychological thriller that's perfect fine and a little too averse to narrative clarity for its own good; if the intent was to plunge us into a neurotic state like Paul's, it frankly didn't get there, and all that really arises is a light confusion that turns into bewilderment in the final scene. Add to that the film's free-floating nihilism, in which horribly nasty things happen and ask of us only a detached intellectual response, and we have an excessively audience-unfriendly film, for something that got a very inexplicable summertime wide release. I don't dislike it, I don't think. At the very least, I don't mind that I saw it, and that I got to chew on it for a bit. But it's not a very satisfying meal, and the list of people I'd recommend this to is extremely short indeed.