A few years ago Jeremy Gardner wrote, directed and co-starred in The Battery, a criminally underrated zombie movie that just had two guys in it… and a horde of zombies. It examined a relationship that had gone on too long – two guys who’d played together in a baseball team and who were then thrown into too-close proximity by an apocalypse – and watched as its final stages played out… with a horde of zombies. Gardner, now co-directing with The Battery’s producer and cinematographer Christian Stella, pulls off something similar with After Midnight. No zombies this time, just a mystery monster lurking outside and a relationship going wrong inside.
Gardner is again in a lead role, playing a guy who… we’re not exactly what Hank does for a living but he seems to have a lot of wine in the house, which he drinks when he’s not drinking beer. He’s a semi-cultured redneck who lives in a one-bar town and spends much of the film on a sofa, with a loaded firearm, waiting for a monster to come through the door.
The door has a hole in it, where Hank has already shot through it at something outside, and there are hideous scratches on the outside of the door. Not a cat, as Hank patiently tries to explain to his buddy Shane (Justin Benson), who’s also the local cop and is worried that Hank is losing his mind.
Dissolving back in time, we see why he might be, as in honeyed light the relationship between Hank and the love of his life Abby (Brea Grant) unspools – laughing, drinking, larking around in Hank’s big old family-sized house, pulling each other’s clothes off, drinking some more.
But Abby has gone, somewhere, having left behind a note with a few words scrawled on it, one of them “sorry”, leaving Hank to brood by day, drink most of the evening and then sit, gun loaded, on his greasy sofa waiting for the monster to turn up around midnight.
As in The Battery, After Midnight is a skilled exercise in world-building. Nothing is over-explained, because much of it is familiar. Down at the local bar we meet Hank’s old friend Wade (Henry Zebrowski), a non-stop talker of shit who might be as dumb as toast or might just be filling in the blanks with the sound of his own voice because there isn’t much else to do around here. There’s also Jade (Taylor Zaudtke), the pretty barkeep with the matter-of-fact manner of a pretty barkeep. Doesn’t have to try too hard.
In swift but bold strokes the Hank and Abby’s world is laid out before us – it’s clearly enough for a boozehound like Hank. But what about AWOL Abby?
The house is shabby and has seen better days, simple, effective set design, visuals and soundtrack all adding to a carefully curated atmosphere of neglect. The gilt is off this gingerbread.
We don’t see much of Wade or Jade, and even less of Hank and Abby’s other friends, Pam (Nicola Masciotra) and Jess (Ashley Song), but all are good actors, and their characters stack up in the sketchy amount of screentime they get – this is an excellently conjured milieu.
The monster. Does it even exist? Is it necessary for the film to hold together? Isn’t this just a relationship drama with a gimmick? Gardner constantly wrong-foots us here, from beginning to end. But more than that he sets out clearly on the “here be monsters” path and then gradually pulls back, as if to see how many of the original elements he needs to retain to keep the horror show on the road. A homeopathic approach to genre that’s fascinating to watch, though probably a touch academic for out-and-out horror nuts.
As well as The Battery and After Midnight, I see from the imdb that Gardner and Stella co-directed a 2015 comedy called Tex Montana Will Survive! I’ll stick it on my list.
After Midnight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021