Abby (Brea Grant) and Hank (Jeremy Gardner, who also writes and co-directs) make a rather cute couple. They nestle against each other and joke about “Peanut Noir” (to be clear, it is a wine made on a peanut farm, not a wine made with peanuts as an ingredient). They razz each other as they slowly get drunk. But their relationship is on the rocks. We know this because Abby spontaneously leaves their rural abode for Miami, leaving Hank with only a note as an explanation.
Also, every subsequent night following her exit, an unseen monster barrels itself against Hank’s door, mentally terrorizing him. So there’s that.
After Midnight (formerly Something Else) is a domestic drama with a tinge of horror. But the horror element functions more as a symbol than a conduit for frightening entertainment. A fair warning for those expecting more than literal bumps in the night.
One can respect the restraint in Gardner and co-director Christian Stella’s approach. I do. The mystery as to the identity of the “monster” makes the first half compelling—Hank tries night after night to expose it and cut it down with his shotgun. But the mystery proves to be of little import; we know this when the true preoccupations of the film come to light. What recurs are the flashbacks illustrating nothing more than the couple relishing in a slow-motion, euphoric love. These images infiltrate Hank’s rejected psyche, thus they invade the frame as well.
The overuse of this flashback structure demands that we see the genre element solely as a metaphor for Hank’s loneliness, thereby dissipating over time the mystery and tension of the nightly ritual. By the time we reach the climax, quirky and heartfelt as it is, the flow is gone. The climax’s abruptness doesn’t help this much; it only adds the cheekiness of an ironic joke.
The emotional backbone that subsumes the genre element is strong enough. It is oversimplified slightly by distinctions between city and rural, high and low culture. But the emotional crisis comes to a head in an extended scene which steals the thunder from everything else this film offers (aside from one of the final moments in the film, involving the pointed use of a pop song, a scene I will not spoil here). It is this scene where Grant and Gardner do their best work as an acting pair. And it is the type of scene the film could have used more of, especially considering how much the flashbacks are used to pad the runtime without adding much in terms of narrative insight.
There are other things to enjoy in the film. The humor strikes an interesting tone, one that is intriguing to follow as the narrative dips in and out of the turbulent relationship. A supporting role from Henry Zebrowski helps push this tone across, as he tackles his lines with his usual cadence of delighted rambling. The design of certain visual elements are also quite good (I’m being as vague as possible to avoid tampering with the viewing experience of the somewhat deliberate plot).
After Midnight is a film with valiant aims but a stumbling execution. To distill a horror genre convention or image into a metaphor is not uncommon, but it is not the easiest task. Take The Babadook, which has arguably one of the most effective distillations. The dread and horror of the “Babadook” is of equal parts grounded in real life psychological trauma and in a folklore-style boogeyman. The two are intertwined to form a narrative that does not sacrifice the horror conventions for the psychological drama, or vice-versa. In the case of After Midnight, the balance simply isn’t struck correctly.
After Midnight: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)