AFTER MIDNIGHT / DIRECTORS: JEREMY GARDNER, CHRISTIAN STELLA / SCREENPLAY: JEREMY GARDNER / STARRING: JEREMY GARDNER, BREAD GRANT, JUSTIN BENSON / RELEASED DATE: OUT NOW (USA), TBC (UK)
Jeremy Gardner's latest, After Midnight, follows the tactic the director has used to great effect in past films such as The Battery; the majority of the film is at one location, with just a few actors, and a plot that hinges on one particular challenge. In this case, most of After Midnight follows the story of Hank (Gardner) and Abby (Brea Grant) over the course of their decade-long relationship.
The story unfolds in the here-and-now, as well as in copious flashbacks to the early days of the pair. Flashbacks are soft-focus, musically-bedded, warm-toned looks at a couple very much in love, whereas the present day scenes are sharp and often dark, after Abby takes off, leaving only a note. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious beast begins attacking Hank and the house at night, leaving terrifying claw marks on the front door.
Genre fans will be quick to wonder as to whether or not Abby's note, reading ‘I had to go away for a while’ means that she's the monster. Perhaps she's a werewolf or other such shapeshifter. Given the presence of Justin Benson as Abby's sheriff brother, Shane, and his work on 2014's Spring, for which he served as co-director, writer, and producer, that might be a little too on-the-nose in terms of nods and allusions, but it's not an unreasonable assumption.
After Midnight is a romance, and it's a monster movie, but it also is neither of those things. For the vast majority of the film, Gardner is playing a man dealing with loss, almost verging on grief. Hank doesn't know what's happened to Abby, and nobody believes what's happening to him. The reason as to their doubt is never spoken, but it's certainly alluded to in the cases of empty wine bottles in a storage room, his job as owner of the local bar, and the fact that he's rarely on-screen without a beer or a shot of whiskey in his hand.
The performances are excellent, in particular the interplay between Gardner and Grant. There's a scene in the latter part of After Midnight wherein Abby has a discussion with Hank, laying out all of her feeling regarding herself, him, and their relationship. It's honest, but it's not angry. The things she says to Hank come across more as resignedly sad, tinged with regret. It's not Abby giving up on them, but she's laying everything on the line, and the hint of hope in her eyes is positively heartbreaking.
The swinging back and forth between paranormal creature and personal connection makes it difficult to really settle into After Midnight as the film goes along. While the early scenes of love contrast excellently with the early scenes wherein one isn't quite sure what's happening to Hank, as the film settles into the interpersonal aspects for a good stretch, it becomes difficult to make the switch back to monster movie.
If a viewer's willing to accept that there might be more tenderness than terror, accepting the brief scenes of fiendish interaction for what they are, however, After Midnight can be a rewarding experience.