There is currently a handful of directors working within the horror genre, who are churning out interesting films that focus on the romantic and fantastical instead of just the horrific and unimaginable. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead made ripples in the genre with their second feature Spring which was dubbed the horror version of Before Sunrise and it’s not a bad comparison. Spring was a beautifully told romance between a man and a monster and it’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise.
Benson and Moorhead have now teamed up with Jeremy Gardner, a writer-director-actor who also impressed many with his debut feature The Battery, a cool twist on the zombie sub-genre, to bring a new tale to the screen. Benson and Moorhead are on producing duties while Gardner and Christian Stella are directing from Gardner’s script and the end result is After Midnight, a tender look at relationships, regrets and monsters.
Gardner plays Hank, who lives in rural Florida and is deeply in love with Abby (Brea Grant), a free, wine-loving soul. The pair have been together for 10 years and one day, Hank wakes up to find Abby gone with a cryptic note saying she’s gone away for a while. Hank is heartbroken and as if that isn’t bad enough, a mysterious monster keeps visiting Hank every night, trying to break down the door.
If you’re expecting a generic creature-feature, you will be sorely disappointed in After Midnight. Gardner and Stella offer us only small glimpses of the monster and the film’s focus is on Hank and Abby’s relationship instead of any bloodshed. Several flashbacks reveal a happy couple, bonding over Peanut Noir wine (not a typo) and mixtapes. It’s wholesome and lovely, really quite romantic, until the monster shows up of course. Even then, After Midnight maintains a gentle gaze as it examines Hank and Abby’s relationship and what the monster represents.
Hank owns a bar where he often downs a few beers and whiskeys with his mate Wade and while it seems like a nice, tranquil life, there’s a sense that trouble was brewing quietly long before Abby took off. While After Midnight isn’t particularly tense or scary, it does reveal some universal truths about our own regrets and the difficulty of relationships and this is exactly why it is so special. It effortlessly blends the horrifying and the romantic and the result is an intoxicating film that feels more like an experience than a cohesive narrative.
This is much more of a mumblegore film than a straight up horror. If you’re familiar with mumblecore, this is its horror sibling, a film which is much more reliant on naturalism and dialogue than plot. It won’t be for everybody, there’s barely any of the spectacle we expect in a horror film, but After Midnight finds value in truth and love, as corny as it sounds.
Gardner makes for an engaging main character. Hank is never anything less than compelling and relatable, even when he is clearly in the wrong. Gardner beautifully brings out Hank’s insecurities and the profound sadness of a man who might have lost the love of his life because he couldn’t offer her more.
Grant is also superb as Abby. Abby isn’t quite as rich a character until very late in the film, she is a elusive and is never afforded her own agency or much of a personality, teetering very close to manic pixie dream girl material. However, this all works well in demonstrating the dynamic within the couple’s relationship and makes the discoveries later on in the film thrilling. The film’s best scene comes quite late in the film and grants Abby a tender, sad and revealing monologue which may bring on an existentialist crisis for those of us who see themselves in Abby.
The film’s monster is only glimpsed at until the finale and while the design is equally ludicrous and inspired, there is something innocent about the good, old man-in-a-suit approach to monsters. Perhaps more inventive camera angles could have been used to disguise it, but it’s still fun to see a film this honest about its approach. It feels vintage and the whole film has a brilliantly lived-in feel about it. Horror films usually fail in making the situations and characters feel real and natural, but After Midnight has that in buckets.
From its brutal emotional honesty to great performances, After Midnight is a must see for fans of mumblegore. For others, this thriller might not contain enough thrills and shocks, but After Midnight holds a lot of beauty within it’s understated, naturalistic narrative. This is a film that is as mesmerising as it is haunting. It’s the perfect film for hot summer nights, to be devoured and cherished, like a fine wine.
Dir: Jeremy Gardner, Christina Stella
Scr: Jeremy Gardner
Cast: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Justin Benson, Henry Zebrowski
Prd: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, David Lawson Jr., Arvind Harinath
DOP: Christian Stella
Music: Eric Krans, Jen O’Connor
Country: United States
Run time: 83 minutes
After Midnight is available on DVD and Blu-Ray June 8th.