Horror in Humanity: The Cinema of Trey Edward Shults

Art by Andrew Kendall

Trey Edward Shults has made two films – 2016’s Krisha and this year’s It Comes at Night – and both are horror films of very different construction, but the lifeblood of each comes down to the same essential truth – nothing is more terrifying than humanity. Whether it’s your family, or what you would do to protect your family, it’s people that create the most anxiety and dread.

Last year, A24 released Krisha, the debut from Trey Edward Shults. It’s as good of a debut as they come, a fist-clenching whirlwind of anxiety and tension. The film follows the title character, an anxiety-riddled, aging mother who has been away from her family for many years, returning home to them for Thanksgiving dinner.

Krisha is one of the worst cases of film-induced anxiety I’ve ever experienced. It was only one act of violence away from being a horror film, you’re spending the whole film waiting for something horrible to happen and knowing it could come at any moment. Each camera angle and movement is meant to heighten the inherent tension and anxiety of being around your family. Every cut ramps up how uneasy it is around other people you’re stuck to but did not choose. Every interaction with another family member has veiled judgement and distrust underneath the homely conversations and welcomes.

Krisha is immediate in how it puts you in a chokehold. The opening shot is a long tracking movement following Krisha as she struggles with her suitcase, dragging it down the road to her family’s house, going to the wrong door before finding the right one. The camera stays directly behind her, slightly above, like it’s judging her. We follow her inside as each member of the family greets her, an uneasy score plays over it all. It’s as exciting of a debut as they come.

In It Comes at Night, rather than the horror being with your family, the horror comes from what you would do to protect your family. An unspoken apocalyptic viral event has taken place, and a family of three tries their best to ride it out in their cabin in the woods. Shults made a post-apocalyptic, quasi-zombie film that managed something that many films only achieve at the most base level – the most terrifying moments don’t come from the outside threat, but from each other.

A family bids a tearful goodbye to the elderly grandfather, who is stricken with some nasty looking illness. He can hardly breathe, his skin is spotted with sores, his eyes are glossed over – he’s going to die. The father of the family and his son take their patriarch out to the woods in a wheelbarrow, say one last tearful goodbye, shoot him in the head, roll him into a pre-dug grave and set his corpse ablaze. The way the fire reflects in the gas masks of these two characters tells us everything we need to know about them. In the son Travis the flames reveal utter sorrow, grief and repulsion over what they’ve had to do. In the father Paul the flames reveal a cruel mandate and an unforgiving resolve – do what you must to survive and protect your family.

Shults admirably brings back many of the crew members he made Krisha with. There’s a constant sense of paranoia and dread in the imagery by Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels. They draw out their scenes in long takes with minimal intrusion of cuts. They linger on their characters faces, looking to reveal some darkness they are trying to hide. It’s nothing short of impressive what Shults and crew pull off with the natural lighting. I doubt I’ve seen night scenes lit with nothing but lamps and flashlights look this good. It never looks cheap, and is always striking, the shadows it causes evoking the distrust and fear these characters feel. By the time the climax comes around (I don’t want to go into detail as the film only recently came out, in order to avoid spoilers), you’re not in fear for these characters because of the infection, but because of what these characters will do to each other to stop the infection from spreading.

Shults is only two films in, but he’s already building himself up for a terrific career. One of the signs of a great filmmaker is when they develop a strong auteur identity early on. Shults has done just that, creating two distinct films that are horror films in distinct, different ways yet draw on the same source for their fear, tension and anxiety – the simple act of being around other people.

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