Heartbreak can be a savage thing. It’s a primal ache that creeps up on you in the middle of the night, ferociously roaring and threatening to tear your heart into tiny pieces. This metaphor is made literal in the horror-drama After Midnight, which focuses on a man-versus-monster battle that begins after the dropping of a devastating Dear John letter.
Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella, co-directors of the 2015 comedy Tex Montana Will Survive!, reteam on the shared helm of After Midnight. Gardner also wrote the script and stars as Hank, a down-home country boy who loves hunting, fixing up his family’s remote old house, and throwing back peanut wine with his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant). That is until Abby vanishes, leaving behind a note that offers little explanation as to why. Yet this is the least of Hank’s worries. Because every night since she’s been gone, he’s been visited by a strange beast that screams and claws at his front door, furious to get inside.
On his own, Hank fends it off with a shotgun and a sofa that he uses as a barricade. But as the days stretch into weeks, he reluctantly turns to his friends for help. Good-humored yokel Wade (Henry Zebrowski) commiserates with a rant about scampering panthers and extraterrestrials, but Wade is also the kind of guy who will drink spilled booze off a bar mat. So, he’s not much solace. In contrast, the local sheriff (Justin Benson) declares the claw marks are clearly from a black bear, and suggests Hank’s heartbreak is shredding his sanity. Whether the creature is real or delusion, it and Hank seem on the brink of an epic showdown. Then Abby comes home.
If you think you’ve got After Midnight figured out, you’re wrong. The film’s premise is proudly creature feature, but it’s second half is largely absent of monster mayhem. Instead, the film shifts to a romantic drama with a long take of Hank and Abby having it out while they wait for the monster to return. This shift is an ambitious move that demands patience from genre audiences hoping for scares and gore. Sadly, Gardner’s gamble doesn’t payoff because he overplays his hand.
Part of the problem is that the romance between Hank and Abby is chiefly presented in flashbacks of playful days refurbishing the house, lazy afternoons in hammocks and sunshine, and giddy seductions over mixed tapes and cheap wine. Many of these flashbacks are silent, clichéd, and rose-colored recollections centered on her beauty and warmth. They give us little insight into Abby’s inner life. Again and again, After Midnight will offer some nice memory then rip us back to Hank’s miserable present with a violent audio transition, then a cut to him in a moment of panic, often brandishing a gun. It’s a terrific idea that viscerally rips us out of the coziness of these memories along with our on-edge protagonist. Repeatedly, it gives a real jolt to the viewing experience. However, the ambiguity of her character stymies the emotional impact of her return. So when it comes time for the long scene meant to play as the turning point, it proves painfully underwhelming.
The staging is simple: both Hank and Abby sit on chairs perched right inside the house with the front doors open wide. He sits with his gun on his knee while she cradles a glass of wine. And they talk, about the monster, about their lives, about why Abby left. It’s all in a static, wide two-shot during which the leads often turn profile to address each other. This cinematography keeps us at a distance, physically and emotionally. The angle often prohibits us from connecting to their eyes. The single shot makes the scene feel stale long before it’s over. And frankly, neither Gardner nor Grant bring the kind of drama that could make this simple setup work. This isn’t the much-ballyhooed climax of Marriage Story in which two wildly charismatic stars unleash onto each other with ruthless recriminations and unbridled wrath. (Even that had plenty of cuts!) It’s a much smaller moment of lip-bitten accusations and whispered frustrations. And its execution just falls flat.
It’s a shame. There are some terrific bits in After Midnight. The monster scenes have a delicious suspense, mounting each time as Hank dares to venture farther and farther from the safety of his couch. A sharp sound design creates a creature cry that is otherworldly, striped with scratches and squeals and something untouchably sinister. Hank’s trips into the dark turn up the terror as the only light is the blast from his gun, giving us thick blackness pierced by violent pops of revelation that include a spectacular and unique beast to fear! There are sections of entertaining country charm, like Wade explaining the uniquely gross cocktail “gorilla farts” or Hank’s sullen sentry through sunlit fields draped with high grass and weeping willows. Gardner and Stella show a sharp skill for crafting quirky comedic beats, building mood from smartly selected locations, and brewing suspense with thoughtful set pieces. Their tonal shifts between comedy and horror are clumsy, but enough of those bits click that it’s nonetheless a thrill. Then come Abby and the heavy-handed rom-dram that never clicked. With that, the film derails slowly but surely. Not even a climax that brings back the monster can save this curious creature feature.
After Midnight (also known as Something Else) opens in limited release on February 14.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com