TEN MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT [2020]: Grimmfest 2020 Review

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Aging punk-rock DJ Amy Marlowe has hosted the edgy rock ’n’ advice radio show Ten Minutes to Midnight for 30 years. However, her lecherous boss Robert is forcing her out, and to make things even more insulting she has to have her replacement Sienna shadow her on her last day. She also has a bite on her neck which may have come from a bat with rabies, and then there’s that hurricane that’s made the authorities forbid anybody from going outside during the night. It’s perhaps small wonder that Amy starts to see things and doubt her own sanity….

“So how do you see this playing out” asks Amy, our heroine [for the most part] in Ten Minutes To Midnight. I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure at all. It’s probably no secret that many of us internet critics have other jobs. I’m pretty safe in mine [I’m going to totally ignore the subject of Covid here] and, without going into detail, can’t see myself being replaced for a very long time even though I’m only just on the right side of 50. However, for many people, the idea of being replaced because you’re considered to be too old and ‘past it’ is a very real fear, and one that brings up depressing and frankly terrifying thoughts about our own mortality, retirement undeniably being a much longed-for rest for some, but also being nothing less than the final stage of our lives before we snuff it and join the choir invisible. And it’s this idea that drives Ten Minutes To Midnight; I didn’t open my review with all this stuff just because I wanted to try and depress the hell out of everyone and/or sound meaningful. The last film to feature the late Nicholas Tucci, Erik Bloomquist’s follow-up to his intriguing-sounding [I have yet to have the pleasure, but will seek it out now] psychosexual thriller Long Lost, also co-written by him and his brother Carson, is about a few people shut in a building, one of whom also might be a vampire.  Sounds simple enough. It’s also one of those films where you’re not sure what’s reality and what isn’t; I tend to love stuff like this, but it is quite common these days. What makes this movie unique is that despite its straight forward premise it manages to be about so much more, even becoming existential, yet without coming across as pretentious; its themes create much thought but are always digestible.

The sound of footsteps and a woman screaming as she’s attacked by something are heard over a black screen before the very ’80s credits appear plus a close-up of part of a clock [very important], while we here the expected synthesiser music. While I do personally enjoy a lot of this sort of music, it still makes me chuckle that the first thing so many filmmakers reach for if they want to create an ’80s vibe is electronic music of the John Carpenter/Tangerine Dream school, even though very few movies of that decade actually had music scores of that kind. After a quick shot of somebody sharpening some piece of wood that looks distinctly like it could become a stake, we see Amy turn up for her last shift at her job. Security guard Ben is revealed as the person with the piece of wood, and maybe it’s not a stake at all, but the idea lingers. Tucci, an actor who seemed to me to be on the verge of stardom before his life was cut short, is great in his final role, which partly functions as comic relief [though not that kind of comic relief where it’s an irritating interruption into the main mood of a film], what with him being convinced that Amy’s going to contract rabies from her bite, especially seeing as she seems to possess some of the symptoms. And here’s another thing; the bat that supposedly bit her is never seen again nor even referenced. That can’t really be counted as a flaw though, seeing as we’re watching a film which partly seems to take place inside its main character’s head.

Smarmy boss Robert who boasts that he’s, “made a career out of seeing things in people” introduces Amy to her replacement Sienna who has to shadow her on her last night. We gather that Amy got her job because she slept with Robert, and that Sienna may have done the same. Her assistant Aaron tells her of when he was a young boy he didn’t just listen to her show but even rang her up. “It’s been lovely working with you” he says, meaning to be nice, but of course it can’t help but hurt poor Amy, especially when it seems that Aaron may have known about this change before Amy did. Amy decides to revive ‘Ask Amy’ her old advice programme, but embarrasses Sienna when she asks her to respond to Amy’s first caller. It’s not very nice what she does, but we sympathise with her anyway, and continue to do so when she airs her frustrations on air and loses her rag with both Robert and Sienna. But do we sympathise with her when she suddenly bites Sienna on the arm? I guess that we still do, I mean she’s full of rightful anger and frustration. One can’t help but pity her when she says, “I was hired to get fired”. Of course it helps that her boss is such a sod. It would be more complex and interesting if he was a nice guy, and we were even made to see his point of view, though without saying too much our opinion of him does change in one scene. But god, Caroline Williams, in a role that’s a deliberate throwback to her turn in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, is simply fantastic. She provides a really strong and relatable centre to the strangeness – and yes, things do get pretty strange.

It seems that, in addition to this storm requiring that people be in lockdown [again, I’m going to totally ignore it] for the night, some solar flares are afoot, and this is lucky because they disrupted the transmission of Amy’s rant so most listeners didn’t hear it. But things are certainly becoming weird. Sienna insists that she remain shut away in a room, only letting Amy come in and see her which of course Amy doesn’t fancy doing. Amy begins to have hallucinations, beginning with seeing Sienna about to fellate Robert; obviously this is something that could actually be happening but it’s done in a very creepy way, then continuing with somebody visiting Amy as a much younger person as she flashes back to the aftermath of what may possibly have been the most important night of her life, a night which set the next 30 years in motion even though in some ways she regretted it. Reality and fantasy proceed to mix, and we don’t always know in which of the two worlds we’re in, though it’s clear that she can’t leave the building. There’s a sort of Christmas Carol-element to the way Amy is visited by the phantoms of her life and mind, and then there’s one particularly neat reveal near the end where one character who we’ve assumed is at the age he actually is turns out to be in reality much older, asking us not to trust even supposed returns to the real world. And, while the big question is, will Amy “walk silently into the sunrise” or “rage into the night”, the film doesn’t forget about the vampirism element even though some of this review may have given that impression; there are some blood-spattered deaths, and some brief but convincing bits of practical special effects grue like some skin being ripped off the side of a face.

We do seem to get several endings when maybe we could have done with one less, but I was by turns surprised, moved and frightened, and most horror fans would agree that it was right to give us what seems like a sentimental finish, then little by little darken the scene until it becomes quite nightmarish, even if I’ve personally never found sentimentality to be a bad thing if I’m genuinely moved by what’s unfolding on screen. A more conventional horror movie coda feels a little tacked on and diminishes the themes a little, even it certainly doesn’t ruin the movie. At the centre of it all of this exchange, “What do we want”?, “Time”. Time is so important as Amy wants more time to carry on doing the job that she’s loved doing for so long, something emphasised by the frequent showings of clocks, usually stuck on 11.50. Time stops for no person, yet quite often time paradoxically gives the impression of standing still, especially when you’re doing the same thing over and over again – which means most of us. I don’t know if this was intended, but I get the impression that we’re supposed to wonder if Amy made the right choice. She opted to do this job that she loved doing, was good at, and which garnered her some fans, yet which may have given her a life that’s rather lonely. We’re not told of any relationships [unless you count Robert] or family; maybe the decision to leave such things was based on something else, but I get the feeling that there’s some ambiguity intended here – which of course makes Amy’s position now, on the final night in the studio before replacement by a younger model, all the more affecting. In terms of othe films we’re most reminded of the creepy cheapie classic Carnival Of Souls.

Clever use is made of the main setting; the rooms are made to look very claustrophobic, but the corridors seem to be very long and sinister. Cinematographer Thomson Nguten initially uses a fairly muted pallet, but more and more scenes occur under extreme light, with some moments taking place under lovely red and blue hues like early Mario Bava; a fairly commonly used device I agree, but one I usually find to be welcome. There are some wonderful shots of rather elegant simplicity that speak volumes; the one that most comes to mind takes place against an entirely black background except for a red clock high up as Amy is talking on a red telephone. Amy is stuck in a kind of limbo; unwilling to move forward, but incapable of moving back, even if the majority of the film itself cheekily unwinds at two points. I don’t tend to watch as much new horrors as most of my co-writers on HCF, chiefly because out of all of us I tend to most prefer the oldies. But Ten Minutes To Midnight truly impressed me and is one of the best new films I’ve seen this year, high or low budget. Another really good thing I can say about it is that it feels entirely complete even in its short 73-minute running time; of course we want to know more about certain things but we’re left satisfied with what we have seen and learnt. If you fancy some food for thought with your horror than I unreservedly recommend that you check it out when it becomes available for home viewing.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★½☆

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About Dr Lenera 1981 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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