★★★★ out of ★★★★★
After Midnight is a languid, beer-soaked monster metaphor for a romantic relationship in freefall. It’s a really well-executed break-up movie, with terrific indie horror bona-fides, but this indie art-house flick is certainly not for your average horror movie fan’s tastes.
Directed by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella
Jeremy Gardner is one of those underground filmmaker/actors who if you’ve been paying attention to the Indie Horror scene you’d be familiar with. He’s this wild-eyed bushy-bearded burly memorable presence in lots of very interesting projects over the past ten years.
There’s a community of independent trendsetters like Larry Fessenden (Depraved), Joe Begos (Bliss), Adam Moorhead and Justin Benson (The Endless), Jenn Wexler (The Ranger), Michael O’Shea (The Transfiguration), and Eric Pennycoff (Sadistic Intentions) who make up a significant segment of American Independent Horror Filmmaking, creating some very intelligent slow-burn horror films.
A lot of credit here goes to Larry Fessenden, who is something of a shepherd for these younger directors and like Larry, many of these directors take acting turns in each others movies. Like Roger Corman, the hugely influential producer who nurtured countless famous young directors (Demme, Coppolla, Scorcese, and Cameron just to name a few…) Fessenden’s directing family tree favors very low-budget films, that concentrate on the story rather than stars. Unlike most Corman films, though this generation of filmmakers has gone for artistic fare rather than grindhouse.
It is with this firmly in mind that you should know that After Midnight is very much a slow-burn think piece of a film. Gardner plays Hank, a 30-something man who is camped out in the entry hall of a dilapidated Florida estate, a legacy home that he and his long-time girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant) have been living in for the past ten years while the two of them have been running a local tavern watering hole.
Abby has left, for unexplained reasons, and has been gone for months, leaving a note on a kitchen cabinet for Hank, but has given zero contact since. Ever since she left, a mysterious beast arrives in the middle of the night trying to break into the house. Hank, an avid hunter, tries to fend off the creature with a shotgun, but despite his hunting instincts cannot find the beast, let alone kill it. The creature growls and tears up the front door, rattling it from its hinges, but Hank cannot get in a good shot.
The locals, including Abby’s brother Shane (Adam Moorhead… There it is! The crossover!), who is the local sheriff are dubious of Hank’s claims of a monster at the door. It’s a bear. Or a panther. But Hank insists that he’s caught a glimpse of the strange being in his flashlight. There’s even a blood trail… but again, everyone else insists that it’s just an animal.
Hank finally manages to corner the monster one night, when he finds it eating the cat that Hank gave to Abby as a birthday present. Hank fires in the dark, but the creature just leaves the poor cat’s carcass behind. The next day, Abby returns. Hank is now a mess. The house is a shambles, his psyche has been wrecked due to loneliness and monster problems, and rather than elation, when he sees Abby, he’s exhausted.
The centerpiece of the film is the revealing of their partnership. Throughout the film, we get flashbacks of the early romantic part of their bond, and through Hank’s memories, it was pure joy and bliss. It was everything he wanted. Stability. Familiarity. Sunshine and smiles. But Abby spins a different tale. She gave everything up of herself to him and felt trapped in the middle of a backward bayou. She wanted a more cosmopolitan life, with new experiences and opportunities like what they could have in Miami.
Eventually, the conversation comes back to the monster, which notably has not come back since Abby’s return. Hank, no dummy, asks Abby directly if she is a shapeshifter. It’s a quiet moment, but a great one.
So, here’s the thing. This is an unconventional horror movie, where the monster clearly is a metaphor for a bad relationship. It is also very much a drama about life expectations and the limits we put upon ourselves. If you enjoyed Midsommar, I would expect you would enjoy this movie. This relationship is not as toxic as the one in Ari Aster’s showcase, but it certainly needs much mending. Everything about this movie is a reflection of Hank and Abby. The decaying estate. The bar. The continual drinking. (There is much talk of drinking Georgia’s finest peanut wine.) The jangly somewhat off-key bluegrass soundtrack.
There is a whole lot about Hank and Abby that is just slightly out of phase of where it should be and the movie does everything to put that in contrast with what Hank’s idyllic memories are of his experiences.
There is some humor to the movie particularly Hank’s drinking buddy, Wade (Henry Zebrowski) who has a great bit involving drinking alcohol from the cup spill tray. But the ending contains a whole lot of unanticipated humor, for what to this point has been a fairly somber film. Although I found the end to be quite amusing, it was a jarring contrast to everything that had come before it.
I am a fan of this sort of storytelling. I love protagonist-forward dramatic horror films, and I fell for this drama. I am also becoming a big fan of Jeremy Gardner, and if you haven’t seen it yet, check out Sadistic Intentions, which is a more conventional but still smart horror piece. However, a big caveat is that this is a movie like Spring or The Babadook where the action is secondary to the psychology of the story. I dug it. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
After Midnight is rated MA-17, for language, some sexual situations, and a little gore. It’s probably PG-13 level, but honestly, this is a movie that kids wouldn’t probably fully appreciate. After Midnight is available for purchase, streaming on Amazon Prime .