Notable Cast: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Justin Benson, Henry Zebrowski, Ashley Song, Nicola Masciotra
Any self-respecting cinephile that cares about films gets excited when two creative forces team up on a new film. Whether it’s actors and actresses, directors, cinematographers, or any other namesake, the idea of the “supergroup” collaborating on a film is incredibly enticing. This is why After Midnight was a must-see film for me at Telluride Horror Show. Although I am not a particular fan of horror-comedy in general, the combination of writer/director Jeremy Gardner (this time co-directing with Christian Stella) and the producing duo of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (directors of the phenomenal The Endless and Spring) was too salivating to pass up. The results are After Midnight, a dramedy with a penchant for some horror set pieces to parallel the emotional state of our lead couple. The film is a sure-fire crowd pleaser and the audience that I saw it with was eating the comedy, drama, and horror up enthusiastically. With a heartfelt relationship to ground the film, some remarkably charming secondary characters, and a silly horror premise that could have worked on its own, After Midnight is a strange buffet of genre and execution – that could only be pulled off by the talent behind it.
The plot for After Midnight is relatively simple. In a small town in the south, a man named Hank played by the writer and co-director Jeremy Gardner is tormented every night by a creature that desperately claws at the front door to get into his rural set house. The creature mysteriously appears as soon as his long-time girlfriend, played with incredible onscreen presence by Brea Grant, disappears. Could the two events be related? Will the local sheriff, also played by the previously mentioned Justin Benson, believe his wild stories now that he’s in an emotional spiral? Will the bar he owns go under from all of his drinking? The premise is ripe for a comedy horror.
The plot, more or less, serves as a guide for the film’s central focus: the complexities of a long-term relationship. Although the monster, which is brilliantly held off-screen for most of the film and completely delivers on its wild and very entertaining design, is played as real, the film mostly uses it as a metaphor for the disintegrating relationship between Hank and his girlfriend, Abby. This is where the film mostly resides, settling into a rather comfortable dramedy that could have easily slid into romantic comedy without the more heartfelt chemistry and horror tidbits. As an example of that, the film uses its key 14 minute no cut sequence as the couple working through miscommunications and their current places in life and the relationship to one another. Not a monster attack. Not a comedic set piece of Hank and his goofy friend Wade wandering through nature to find the creature. It uses it for a semi-improvised (in tone) discussion on the compromise of understanding one’s partner. Fortunately, it works in spades. Gardner and Grant feel completely connected, the realistic manner that their relationship turns, and the focus of the narrative carry After Midnight as a surprisingly heartfelt story.
At a relatively brisk 80+ minutes in runtime, After Midnight does occasionally feel as though it could have used more horror elements to balance things out. When the horror happens, it’s usually fun and shocking – particularly as Hank starts to try and outsmart the monster that is tearing at his front door, but the film’s use of it as a metaphor very much stays grounded as a metaphor more than a true horrifying cinematic experience. It’s so invested in this concept that by the end of the film – which does feature one of the best uses of a karaoke machine I’ve seen in a film recently – one begins to wonder if there will be more horror sequences or if the film would play the entire “it’s all in his head” card. No spoilers, but rest assured the film handles it in a smart way that fits in with the rest of the film’s tone.
After Midnight is an odd film, genre-bending a dramedy with horror elements to create a unique way to analyze and present a relationship film. In a weird way, this film is the perfect pairing for Midsommar from earlier this year. It’s a lot of the same core beliefs but presented in almost the opposite manner, which begs for a double feature. All in all, After Midnight satiated the desire for the team-up of Gardner/Benson/Moorhead that I could have wanted as a fresh take on a couple of basic film formulas. Although it’s probably my least favorite from any of them, it’s still worth seeing.
Written By Matt Reifschneider