3.5 out of 5 stars

Writer-director-actor Jeremy Gardner’s After Midnight has the distinction of being the only film classified by Wikipedia as a “romantic monster movie”, and that bizarre pairing of adjectives says plenty about the difficulty of pigeonholing this strange, and strangely engaging, minuscule-budget production.

A horror movie it certainly isn’t, though, despite the way marketing has tried to position it. The monster element is most plausibly seen as metaphorical (or, alternatively, as sheer crazy fun on the part of the filmmakers, not to be taken seriously), and quite possibly the much-discussed beast could represent psychological distress. But After Midnight is less disturbing than other recent horror films touching on that theme, such as His House (2020) or Saint Maud (2020).

At most it has the mildly nightmarish quality of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), and in any case it’s a lot more like Marriage Story (2019) than any of those films, for the emotional element is convincingly real and even touching.

After Midnight is set in rural Florida (it hardly strays from the environs of the main character’s home), at an unspecified time that might be a couple of decades ago—a digital camera is seen, but there are no mobile phones. Hank (Gardner) and Abby (Brea Grant) are introduced as a young couple, clearly ecstatic together in a sprawling old house that’s been passed down through Hank’s family. She says it’s like something out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

But then we see a note she’s left for Hank, saying she’s gone away for a while, before we see him alone in the house, disconsolate and perhaps growing paranoid. He leaves a message on her answerphone: “ever since you left, some kind of… thing is coming out of the woods every night.” That this revelation, introducing the horror to the romance, is dropped in so casually is typical of After Midnight’s wry humour.

For a while the movie cuts back and forth, from the early days of Hank and Abby’s relationship to Hank alone in the house, and we learn they were together for 10 years before she disappeared. Eventually the flashbacks die down and the movie concentrates on its present, with Hank preoccupied with the monster that seems to claw at the front door every night, and at one point apparently even gets into the house (although we don’t see it when it does).

Hank has a hard time convincing others, especially local police officer Shane (Justin Benson). “Our imaginations draw faces in the dark… and always draw sharp teeth,” says Shane, as the voice of reason. Hank’s best friend Wade (Henry Zebrowski), on the other hand, is decidedly the voice of amiable unreason, producing wild explanations involving aliens and toxic waste.

The first of two considerable surprises in the movie comes when Abby returns, nonchalant about her weeks-long absence, and this leads to an absorbing 13-minute scene where the couple, waiting on the front porch for the monster to make its daily visit, find that their conversation’s become a dissection of their relationship. This scene is the emotional heart of After Midnight, and shows off terrifically well the contrasting styles of the two lead performers.

Gardner’s Hank was clearly once a contented, easygoing guy, but unfocused anger and suspicion have crept into him, even if they’re contained for now. Grant’s Abby, meanwhile, has more dreams in life than he does (she wants high culture, she wants new experiences), and though she loves him she has doubts about the relationship too. She’s the more clear-eyed of the pair.

That they have this heart-baring conversation while waiting for a possibly non-existent monster to show up encapsulates the odd, but not unsuccessful, way in which After Midnight balances its two storylines. Superficially, the monster might like seem their most pressing concern, but it’s obvious their relationship is the bigger question. The monster is, depending on how you choose to read the film, either a metaphor for something related to the relationship, or simply a pesky critter that’s annoying but hardly life-changing.

Perhaps it’s both at once, but in any case there’s something beautifully cheeky and rather refreshing about a monster movie where the monster is more of a pest than an existential menace.

In its portrayal of a realistically complex relationship, where a couple love one another but still don’t see eye-to-eye over many things, After Midnight excels. And it’s the performances, as well as the script, that make that relationship completely believable. But there’s much else to like in the film, too, including ravishing photography from cinematographer and co-director Christian Stella. Even if the compositions, often excellent, can also be slightly self-conscious, as can Gardner and Stella’s editing.

It’s a movie with clever little touches, too: questioning whether Hank’s just imagining the nightly visits of a ravening beast (the sofa makes a growly noise when he moves it), then hinting that it does exist (a shot from behind vegetation, as if watching Hank and Wade while they explore a wild area near the house). And then there’s the way Hank, inexplicably, uses full wine bottles for target practice: is he giving up drinking, or just losing the plot?

Enhancing this confident filmmaking is a selection of soundtrack songs that are well-chosen and often appropriate to the narrative, including The Hummingbirds’ “13 Days”, The Parlor’s “Stay for Good this Time”, and Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)”—previously featured in Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994). The original score, by Eric Krans and Jen O’Connor of The Parlor, also does some modestly surprising things at times.

After Midnight was originally called Something Else, which might have been a better title, even if neither is particularly informative. It starts out seeming to be one kind of film, then turns into something else, and then turns into something else again at least twice.

It is relatively slight (certainly more a short story than a novel, so can feel slow even at 83-minutes), and maybe the monster element is ultimately unsatisfying, as one can’t escape the suspicion the filmmakers themselves couldn’t decide whether they really wanted a monster or not.

Still, there are some very human individual scenes, and superlative performances, along with stylish visuals that more than make up for the tiny budget. Following on from the impressively original zombie flick The Battery (2012) and the comedy Tex Montana Will Survive! (2015), it confirms Gardner as an accomplished indie filmmaker to watch.

USA | 2019 | 83 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

directors: Jeremy Gardner & Christian Stella.
writers: Jeremy Gardner.
starring: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Henry Zebrowski, Justin Benson, Ashley Song, Nicola Masciotra & Keith Arbuthnot.