Directed by Jeremy Gardner, Christian Stella
Horror is like a house, with different rooms for different subgenres. The supernatural and slasher rooms are perhaps the biggest, though the zombie conservatory has seemed to grow despite looking like a mistake for years. Then you have Found Footage: the shed nobody likes, but sometimes has a useful tool or two. In this strained metaphor, horror-romance is a little cupboard most people forget is there unless they’re reminded and feel like digging out Audition or The Fly. Which is unfortunate, as After Midnight shows how stories about people that go bang in the night, and things that go bump, can make for fine bedfellows. After all, horror can provide a dramatic backdrop to test a relationship, or to see the solace one can get from their partner. Besides, sometimes opposites attract.
The latest film from Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella revels in the tonal contrast, opening on the idealised early stages of a relationship. Hank (Gardner) and Abby (Grant) visit a decrepit old house his family owns in Florida, where they flirt, drink Georgian wine and play with a kitten. It’s a sickly-sweet montage, violently disrupted by a piercing shotgun shell. Cut to the present. We’re ten years later, Hank is alone in the same house, and he’s bearded – the universal sign of being in a bad place. He’s also just blasted a hole in his door trying to shoot something outside. A monster has been stalking the nearby woods every night since Abby took off, leaving nothing more than a short note, and comes scratching at the door after dark. Of course, nobody believes him, and the film looks at both the breakdown of his relationship and, potentially, his sanity.
Amongst the supporting cast, you may recognise Justin Benson, as Abby’s brother Shane. Him, and his collaborator Aaron Moorhead, with whom he made modern cult hits Spring (2014) and The Endless (2017) are part of the production team. It fits, given After Midnight has a similar low-key, almost slice of life feel about it. Hank’s a simple guy, who just wants to work behind the bar, do drunk karaoke badly and shoot the shit with his hunting mates – something we learn was a problem for former city kid Abby, who misses Miami. Is this where she’s gone now? To paraphrase Welsh rockers The Stereophonics, hopefully entertaining many a staff night out near you again soon enough; it’s the not knowing that kills us. During rocky parts of a relationship, or if someone calls it quits, there’s maybe a very natural tendency to want an easy answer where there isn’t one. As if, were it not for a few actions, things would be different. After Midnight takes this tendency and turns it into a literal monster.
I can only assume the title intentionally riffs on Linklater’s trilogy, with which After Midnight shares thematic DNA. From the initial buzz to the long-term resentments that can build up, Gardner’s script handles the central romance with surprising sensitivity. Initially, the reliance on silent montages gives it a cheesy tweenage look, implying Garnder couldn’t be arsed writing any dialogue or is only superficially interested in this part. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. As it goes on, not only does he allow both sides a chance to speak their mind, but them doing so even becomes the dramatic core. In a subversion of the typical formula, the relationship-in-crisis aspect goes on to all but eclipses the monster movie, going way beyond the mere subtext it’d often get relegated to. Specifically, there’s a long, single shot in which both characters are at their most vulnerable. Not in fear of whatever’s out there, but of rejection and the possibility things between them can’t be worked out. Compared to this possibility, the beast almost seems twee.
The disproportionate focus may be a disappointment for viewers looking for a more traditional creature-feature. Aside from a claw through the hole here, or gruff grunt there, the monster’s an abstract threat. There are accomplished moments of horror, including a superb sequence where Hank goes out with his shotgun that uses lighting to an excellent effect. However, the third act is not that one some of the audience may be wanting, with the physical threat barely featuring. Yes, it is still present, insofar as the average viewer (and even Hank himself) will recognise that it’s a stand-in for the feelings he has towards Abby that he has to confront. Yet Gardner and Stella would rather that this confrontation take the form of an emotional resolution instead of a visceral one. It won’t work for everyone, but it did for me. Even if it’s a little rushed, I came to care more about their future than seeing the monster. Hence, I see After Midnight as a successful marriage between two normally disparate forms of film. Hopefully, it’ll inspire more horror movie makers to break down the walls and go open plan.
After Midnight is available on VOD limited edition Blu-ray 8th June. You can win a copy here.