Written by: Jeremy Gardner
Directed by: Jeremy Gardner, Christian Stella
Starring: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, and Henry Zebrowski
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Love will rip your heart out.
Horror films that explore other aspects of our humanity beyond the things that terrify us are nothing new. In fact, I assume most have accepted that horror almost always operates on a metaphorical level, its various boogeymen conjured up so we can confront our more concrete anxieties. Recent years especially have given rise to blatantly allegorical films, where the monsters are a manifestation of intimate or social ills. With After Midnight, Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella seem to have such a movie in mind, one that features a familiar genre framework—in this case, a monster movie—as the backdrop for the story of a crumbling relationship. The implication seems clear: the monster in this story might just be a metaphor for its lovelorn character’s inability to grapple with his failures. It’s almost certainly what Gardner and Stella want the audience to assume; however, the film’s original title provides the first hint that there could be something else going on here.
An air of melancholy loss lingers over After Midnight: even though we first glimpse Hank (Gardner) and Abby (Brea Grant) in the throes of young, new love, the specter of its end looms as the tale flits back and forth between that idyllic past and the present. Ten years after we meet them, Hank’s old family home—which once felt like an escape for young lovers—has become more of a crucible. Abby has taken off, leaving behind only a cryptic note without any explanation. Despondent, Hank drinks in both his living room and the local dive he co-owns with Abby, neither of which brings much comfort. His buddies—including the sheriff (Justin Benson) and Wade (Henry Zebrowski)—try to help to no avail. As he broods on his memories of those better days, Hank confronts that they might truly be over. Oh, and there’s a monster that comes to his porch each night, pounding at his door, its scratch marks leaving the only evidence that it actually exists.
You know the drill from here—or at least you think you do. Hank’s friends laugh off his stories about the monster at his door, insisting that it’s probably a bear or even insinuating that he might be losing his mind. And maybe he is: even though the camera reveals that something is terrorizing Hank, the monster action is so sparse and confined to a handful of scenes that it’s easy to assume After Midnight is going to be one of those movies where the unseen menace lurks in the margins, maybe existing only as a metaphorical construct for the characters. Movies like this are always a gamble. If you promise a monster but only mildly deliver it, you’d best make sure the drama you’re more invested in is compelling enough to carry the film. The only way that phantasmal metaphor ever works is if it’s in the service of something equally as potent.
Thankfully, After Midnight effortlessly clears this bar. Its twin portraits of the two distinct moments in Hank and Abby’s life are equally well-drawn and fully affecting. The flashbacks—with its wispy camerawork and melancholy score—are wistful, impressionistic sketches of a thriving relationship. The adoration on Hank’s face for Abby beams in these sequences, reminding viewers of why he’s so despondent now that he’s lost her. Grant is effervescent as Abby, an infectious presence that winds up lingering over the film like a ghost. Hank exclusively remembers her in moments of sun-splashed bliss: cozying up on a blanket on her 24th birthday, drinking shitty wine, and visiting vineyards. He doesn’t notice when the camera captures her moments of doubt and longing, like when he laughs off the notion of having kids when friends start asking about when the two will settle down. We see the cracks beginning to form even when Hank doesn’t—for him, Abby remains an ideal until she wanders back into the film, where he realizes she’s not the same woman she was back then.
In the meantime, though, he clings to those memories as he drifts through the doldrums of his life without her. Hank is a simple guy who’s settled into his comfortable groove in his 30s, still hanging out with his silly buddies on hunting trips or at the bar, where he dares Wade to drink all of the stray drinks that accumulate on the mats after a long day. The present tense of After Midnight depicts a vivid, offbeat portrait of Florida men soaked in booze and sunshine as Hank seeks some distraction from Abby’s absence.
Gardner radiates zen good old boy vibes that waft over the entire production: despite the current crisis in his life, he remains an easygoing brooder who’s still witty and soulful as he swaps banter with his co-stars. Zebrowski is a revelation as Wade, an instantly recognizable goofball. I like to think every group of friends has a Wade: the guy or gal who thinks out loud at every turn, prattling on about alien invasions and whatever other nonsense crosses his scrambled mind. He’s also the first one to wrap you up in a big bear hug when he sees you’re going through a tough time. For a monster movie about a strained relationship, After Midnight is a remarkably light-on-its-feet hangout movie, stuffed with nice little moments of characters finding solace in everyday life, whether it’s at the bottom of a bottle or in the embrace of best buds. If its title is meant to evoke the works of Richard Linklater, it more than earns and deserves the comparison.
Never is that more clear than the moment Abby wanders back in the door after being missing for several weeks. Suddenly, all of the relaxed energy of After Midnight coils up into a ball, forced to a moment of crisis when the two have to finally speak the words that have been silently building between them for years. In a deeply affecting long take, the couple confronts the central tension brewing in their relationship: she wants more than this mundane life has to offer her, and each new birthday brings the anxiety that this is it. She’ll always be an unmarried, childless woman tending bar in the middle-of-nowhere town she vowed to leave as soon as she finished college. She does most of the talking here, while Hank punctuates each grievance with swigs of wine that feel like both resignation and defiance all at once. His heartbreak swells but he struggles to form a response because he knows Abby isn’t wrong. The best thing about After Midnight is that it finds no blame in this situation. Sometimes, couples grow apart because they want different things from life.
For a moment, this tension looks to define the film’s climax, when Hank and Abby, still raw from this conversation, host a birthday dinner party with all of their friends. As the guests prattle on, the tension between Abby and Hank simmers like Hitchcock’s bomb under the table: you just feel like it’s going to go off at any second, leading to an emotional heartbreaking climax. But After Midnight is slippery to the end, refusing to cater to any expectations you might have for it. Most importantly, it doesn’t betray its own sweet, easygoing heart. Let’s just say more monster movies should resolve its conflicts with full karaoke renditions of 90s pop staples.
You could be forgiven, of course, for forgetting this is a monster movie at all. The creature recedes fully into the background once Abby arrives, prompting the audience to assume it was a manifestation of her absence after all. As Hank notes, the monster suddenly disappears when Abby returns, hinting that maybe the whole ordeal was allegorical. Gardner and Stella deftly tease this possibility, playing a long game in orchestrating one of the best jump scares in recent memory—if not ever. After Midnight is utterly delightful in its commitment to the bit of the slow burn, long con horror. I’m not quite sure I’d call it a parody of those kinds of movies, but it’s certainly having fun with that formula. You know how you’ll watch a movie like this and decide you’d easily watch it without the genre elements because you love the characters and their world so much?
After Midnight almost calls you on that bluff, forcing you to realize that this is a perfectly nice, sweet movie that doesn't even need a monster. But then it gives you one anyway, not just because it respects its audience but because it loves its characters. In doing so, it upholds a time-honored horror tradition: sometimes, you have to show beloved characters the kind of tough love that leaves them battered, bruised, and soaked in blood after they’ve exorcised the demons within and without. After Midnight lands on a perfect grace note that captures its playful, disarming charms in a moment that’s gross and sweet all at once. I think they should have just gone with the original title for this one because it really is something else: an monster movie that wants to bring its characters together instead of tearing them apart.
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