Shudder’s latest is at least as much a relationship drama as a monster movie, but somehow isn’t bad.
In the endless battle for our eyes and souls between Netflix, Disney+ and HBOMax, too often left out of the discussion is Shudder. As far as niche streaming services are concerned, no one is doing it better than them, with a vast collection of classic, international and original horror. They’re also not afraid to push back against horror fans’ often narrow minded definition of what “horror” actually is. After Midnight may confound and frustrate some, but deserves some praise just for trying something a little different. It doesn’t always work, but it tries.
Directed by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella, After Midnight is at various times a mumblecore relationship drama, an indie comedy, and a monster movie. Sometimes it feels earnest, others like the filmmakers are tipping a very big wink at the audience. Normally I’d accuse Gardner and Stella of trying to cover all their bases so as to avoid negative reviews, but it’s too weird to minimize it. It’s not scary, but it’s never boring either.
Gardner is Hank, despondent after his girlfriend, Abby (Brea Grant), disappears, leaving only a cryptic note behind. Bearded and slovenly, Hank often wallows in Instagram filtered flashbacks of an earlier time when he was clean-shaven and slightly less slovenly, and things were good with the beautiful, almost angelic Abby. When night falls, however, his waxing nostalgic is interrupted by a gruesome monster who ferociously tries to get into his house. Though his Boomhauer-like friend Wade (Henry Zebrowski) tries to help him find it, nobody but Hank ever seems to encounter this creature, and it becomes increasingly apparent that perhaps he’s the only person who can see it.
After Midnight may confound and frustrate some, but deserves some praise just for trying something a little different.
Whether the monster is a metaphor or not (and I can’t tell you without spoiling the ending), it’s actually the less interesting part of After Midnight. What ends up being unexpectedly fascinating is looking at the flashbacks of Hank and Abby’s relationship, which are entirely from Hank’s perspective. There are subtle hints that the relationship wasn’t as happy as it appeared at first blush — nothing sinister, just the kind of thing that happens to a lot of relationships. Stagnancy, a lack of communication, taking that your partner will always be there when you wake up the next day for granted. Hank’s memories of the good times seem almost a little too golden lit and cinematic, as if he’s kidding himself into thinking there weren’t any red flags that he chose to ignore. It’s not terrifying, exactly, but it’s certainly unsettling.
After Midnight stumbles a bit when Abby returns, and we get a very long sequence of she and Hank airing out their grievances with each other, the monster evidently forgotten. The film works better when such things are suggested, rather than plainly spoken, and here it feels like Gardner, who also wrote the script, wasn’t entirely sure what kind of movie he wanted to make. It’s an okay monster movie, a pretty good comedy, and a very good drama, but they don’t always suit each other, and the rapidly shifting moods are often hard to follow. Still, you have to admire the audacity to have a character perform a sincere karaoke version of Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” in your horror movie.
After Midnight doesn’t work as a horror movie so much as a fascinating art project, an exquisite corpse of themes and moods. It cleverly sets up Hank as an unreliable narrator in two ways: we don’t know if the monster he keeps hearing is real, and we don’t know if his relationship with Abby was as happy as he remembers it being. Up until the third act (and the whole thing breezes by at a lean 80 minutes), we only see her in flashback, almost always laughing and adoring of everything Hank says and does. He’s cherry-picking his own memories, focusing on the good so that he doesn’t have to think about why she might have left.
Clearly Gardner had more to say about this than the nature of monsters. One wonders how good After Midnight could have been if he had decided to make a full psychological drama instead, one that focuses on the fallibility of our memories, and how it’s just as easy to ignore things that are really there, while seeing something that isn’t.
After Midnight premieres on Shudder February 12th.
After Midnight Trailer: