Written by: Rob Kennedy (original film) Travis Zariwny (screenplay)
Directed by: Travis Zariwny
Starring: Lin Shaye, Robert Englund, and Gabrielle Haugh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
All your fears belong to him.
The Midnight Man is the latest film to give a cinematic face to an urban legend, particularly the brood of boogeymen that have cropped up in Creepypastas and other similarly minded online haunts. In fact, it’s the second film in the past five years dedicated to this specific ghoul, with this effort by Travis Z. serving as a remake of Rob Kennedy’s 2013 Irish film of the same name. Where that effort was scrappy and homespun, this one arrives boasting the likes of Robert Englund and Lin Shaye, a couple of genre titans whose presence does little to bring a spark of life to this somnolent trudge through the motions.
Shaye is Anna Luster, a dementia patient confined to her home, where she’s in the care of her granddaughter, Alex (Gabrielle Haugh). While Alex obviously loves her grandmother, she can’t help but she’s odd—in fact, she’s always been odd, even before this mind-crippling disease took hold. She’s been particularly obsessed with a vanity mirror for much of her life, and, when she suddenly finds herself without it, Anna sends Alex and her visiting boyfriend off to the attic to retrieve it. The two find more than they expect—sure enough, there’s the mirror, but it’s resting alongside a mysterious box that’s been clasped shut, almost as if someone never wanted it to be reopened. Curiosity naturally wins out, prompting the two to dig out its contents, which include a cryptic, blood-stained list of names and rules for “The Midnight Game” that they promptly follow to the letter, in turn summoning a demonic spirit that preys on their worst fears.
But this Midnight Man is also the most meticulous, pedantic boogeyman imaginable, as his game involves an endless assortment of rules. Watching the players abide by them almost feels like an absurd farce: players must knock on a door exactly 22 times at midnight, with the last one coming right before the final stroke. They then have to scurry about the house, candle in tow, avoiding the Midnight Man until 3:33; if the candle extinguishes, they have to stand within a circle of salt for protection, and so on and so forth. You find yourself missing the ruthless efficiency of the great cinematic boogeymen: don’t fall asleep, lest you fall prey to Freddy Krueger. Don’t say Candyman’s name five times. Maybe don’t read from the Necronomicon. Simple, one-sentence hooks that draw the audience in, allowing the boogeyman to do its thing unencumbered.
By comparison, The Midnight Man is burdened by mush-mouthed exposition and unclear consequences. Several times throughout the film, characters—including one of Alex’s friends who visits at the worst possible time—actually lose the game, triggering their worst fears. And yet, for whatever reason, these turn out to be elaborate delusions, a prelude for when the Midnight Man arbitrarily decides to actually “take” them later. It’s utter nonsense and indicative of how the script utterly chokes the life out of the proceedings: you find yourself so caught up in keeping track of the rules and confounded by certain events that you feel compelled to snooze right through it all.
Travis Z’s leaden direction doesn’t help matters. While it’s clear that he’s making an admirable attempt at crafting atmosphere and a suffocating sense of dread, his film is too low-key. Characters jabber on and on, while Olaf Pyttik’s droning, ambient score creates a further lulling sensation: perhaps true to its name, The Midnight Man is a sleepy little movie that can’t be consistently roused from its slumber. I’m always hesitant to dismiss any move as simply being a bore, but if any movie deserves such dismissal, it’s certainly this one. I mean, this is the sort of movie where the Midnight Man spills some water in order to break a salt circle, only to be thwarted by a girl blocking it with a pile of soil. So riveting.
What’s most frustrating is that it’s incongruously bad in this respect: a cursory glance at The Midnight Man reveals a gorgeous, neo-gothic palette dominated by this old, dark, snowbound house, where billowy shadows cloak dusty corners that brood with menace. It’s an undeniably bleak and haunting aesthetic, but it’s also a fantastic, largely wasted bit of production design that’s constantly looking for a pulse. Shaye does what she can to provide it with a manic performance that grows more sinister as the film reveals the depth of her involvement in this disturbing game. It’s a different sort of turn for her, one that sees her tapping into something genuinely menacing, be it through hysteric outbursts or quietly unnerving glares. Co-star Englund—who actually receives top-billing despite much less screen-time—also provides some natural intrigue as Anna’s longtime caretaker, a character that might as well be named Dr. Exposition since he’s swiftly reduced to further explaining the backstory and rules.
Co-star Englund—who actually receives top-billing despite much less screen-time—also provides some natural intrigue as Anna’s longtime caretaker, a character that might as well be named Dr. Exposition since he’s swiftly reduced to further explaining the backstory and rules. More than anything, Englund’s casting feels like an acknowledgment that The Midnight Man is the latest half-assed riff on Freddy , who needn’t worry about being supplanted here. To the film’s credit, a few scenes at least reveal The Midnight Man’s potential, like an opening prologue set in 1953 captures Anna’s first encounter with the spirit. Later sequences where he exploits his victims’ fears also feature some striking images: one girl is bathed in blood, while another is visited by a memory involving a childhood pet that stays just on the right side of weird and nightmarish without crossing over into unintended comedy.
Moments like this provide evidence that Travis Z. is obviously capable of managing some cool visuals; unfortunately, the rest of The Midnight Man leaves you wondering if he’s found a niche helming slick but empty remakes whose very existence leaves you confounded. That’s especially true of this one since it climaxes with a predictable but infuriating twist that basically asks viewers to crumple most of the script up and toss it away. The Midnight Man is obsessed with rules until it isn’t, making it easy write off as you roll your eyes at it—well, assuming they’re still open by that point.
Scream Factory and IFC Midnight will release The Midnight Man on Blu-ray on June 6th. Supplements include a theatrical trailer and Rob Kennedy's original film as a separate feature.
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