By Scott Dorward
After Midnight (USA, 2019)
Last year, I watched Jeremy Gardner’s The Battery as part of my October Horror Movie Challenge. While I am thoroughly burnt out on zombie films, The Battery was clever and different enough to at least partly win me over. Having heard that Gardner had a new release, After Midnight, that was untainted by the stench of the dead, I knew I had to put it on my list for this year.
Hank (Jeremy Gardner) and Abby (Brea Grant) have been together for 10 years, running a bar and living in Hank’s crumbling family home in rural Florida. One day, Abby leaves a terse note saying she has gone to Miami and Hank is left alone. As his world falls apart, his house is stalked by a strange monster that only comes out after midnight. Hank draws upon his skills as a hunter, lying in wait and setting traps, but is unable to catch more than glimpse of the beast.
As Hank’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric, his friends try to steer him back to sanity. With the help of his old hunting buddy Wade (Henry Zebrowski), Hank sets out to solve the twin mysteries of what this monster is and why Abby won’t return his phone calls.
Many years ago, I read an interview with an American film critic (I want to say Roger Ebert, but I really can’t remember) in which he mused about why critics laud films that rarely appeal to a wide audience. He suggested that if you watch dozens of films a month that resemble ones you’ve seen before and one unusual outlier, it’s going to be that outlier that sticks in your mind. Someone who only goes to the cinema once a month may still find any of the others fresh. It just comes down to exposure.
While I am not a professional critic, I have spent much of the past 50 years watching more horror films than any healthy person should. I’m conscious that many of the horror films I enjoy most are those that drift furthest from genre conventions. While a good, well-told ghost story might grab my attention, I’m less likely to warm to it as much if it doesn’t show me anything I haven’t seen before. A film that takes chances, telling a different kind of story or bringing in elements not usually found within the genre, is likely to appeal to me far more. And that is certainly the case with After Midnight.
This is at least as much a love story as it is horror. The portrayal of a couple trying to save a struggling relationship is so vividly brought to life that I almost forgot I was watching a film about a monster. But for all that emotional churn, After Midnight is also very funny. As much as I love grim, tense films that ratchet up the scares, ones that make me feel other things as well are more likely to win my heart. Art, at its core, is about communicating emotion, and After Midnight does this flawlessly.
So far, After Midnight is the film to beat this year in this challenge. While it may not be scary, it has an emotional range most horror can only dream of. If a film can simultaneously move me to tears and make me laugh while showing someone being attacked by a monster, it’s a winner.
Gardner uses his budgetary limitations and handful of sets to great effect, creating an intimate, immersive experience. This is a film confident enough to show us a 15-minute continuous shot of a couple discussing their relationship and expect to hold our attention. And it is not wrong.
Of course, all the reasons After Midnight works for me will probably put off a lot of viewers. Anyone expecting a straightforward horror film with lots of scares is going to be disappointed. This is a romance with monsters. The closest comparison I can find is Spring, which I reviewed some years ago. It’s clearly no coincidence that Gardner has worked with Moorhead and Benson, and that Justin Benson appears in a supporting role here.
I’ll be surprised if another film this month hits the same heights as After Midnight. But if there is another one this good in my line-up, 2021 is going to be an exceptional year.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!