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Review: Mom, Dad, the Kid and the Dog. What Could Be Scarier?

This is turning out to be quite a year for horror movies. Pure coincidence, of course. And while the genre waxes and wanes like the moon over a creepy old house, it is unlikely to disappear as long as we have fears that need purging. It’s the nature of those fears that tends to shift over time — from the social to the psychological, from supernatural evil to human depravity, from what’s out there to what’s in here.

“It Comes at Night,” a rigorous and astute film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, plays the outside-in dialectic beautifully. Initially, the premise looks like one we’ve seen plenty of times before: An epidemic has wiped out a lot of the population; food and water are scarce; survivors barricade themselves against contamination from the sick and competition from the healthy.

All of that is established quickly and obliquely. No zombies come shambling through the woods, and Mr. Shults doesn’t jolt the audience with false scares or showy plot twists. He builds up the dread with ruthless efficiency and minimal gimmickry, relying on and refreshing some of the oldest techniques in the book. The camera glides down a long, dimly lighted corridor. The soundtrack pulses with dissonant chords and heartbeat rhythms. (The score is by Brian McOmber.) Daylight is scarce, and shadows are long.

Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), with their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and a dog named Stanley have turned a rambling country house into a fortress and a sanctuary. Grieving after the death of Sarah’s father (David Pendleton), they cling to a routine that they hope will keep them safe. Before long they are joined by another family, a younger, less somber mirror image of themselves: Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough) and their little son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).

Needless to say, the visitors bring complications as well as companionship. There is sexual tension between Travis and Kim, and masculine rivalry between Paul and Will. Mistrust simmers and occasionally breaks into the open. The forest, meanwhile, is full of strange sounds and movements. And the house is full of guns.

What happens is both shocking and, in retrospect, brutally inevitable. “It Comes at Night” is pretty terrifying to sit through, but it may be even scarier after it’s over, when you sift through what you’ve seen and try to piece together what it may have meant. Travis, who is plagued by nightmares, tries to do just that, and serves as the viewer’s surrogate. His perspective seems to be the only one we can trust, and he seems relatively sensitive, decent and innocent.

Not that anyone else is all that terrible. The two sets of parents are surely doing their best. But when Paul asks, “Do you know what people are capable of when they’re desperate?” it isn’t exactly a rhetorical question. Rather, it’s the problem Mr. Shults has set out to investigate, with a precision that is all the more unnerving for being fundamentally humane.

Mr. Shults’s first feature, the remarkable “Krisha,” was a family drama that often felt like a horror movie. “It Comes at Night” is the reverse. There are obvious differences of style and tone — “Krisha” was talky and busy; the new film is taciturn and austere — but the director’s preoccupations are as consistent as his sensibility. In both cases, people are thrown together in a house by circumstances they don’t control, and how they will deal with it all becomes an ethical text with stakes high enough to implicate the audience as well as the characters.

“It Comes at Night” is very much worth seeing on its own. It’s smart without making too big a deal of its own cleverness, and admirably thrifty. If you haven’t seen “Krisha,” though, I’d recommend a double bill, an early-career retrospective of the work of a spookily self-assured, slyly ambitious young filmmaker whose apparently modest stories have mighty implications.

Both films are about the impulse to preserve a sense of normalcy in difficult circumstances, and both reveal the cruelty behind that impulse. Paul and Sarah are not only struggling to save their family but also to hold onto a civilization — a sense of order, of dignity, of stability — that is in the midst of collapsing. If, that is, it ever really existed in the first place.