Horror fans will be well versed in the saga of life post-The Battery for writer, director, and star Jeremy Gardner. The thrilling modernist zombie movie was beloved of fans and critics alike but, as is sadly typical with these kinds of things, a helluva lot of people pirated it and, as a result, Gardner and his team found it difficult to get anything else made, leading to the crowdfunded and then released-for-free YouTube comedy, Tex Montana Will Survive, an underrated exercise in overcoming low budget limitations with the best, and weirdest, TMNT joke in a film maybe ever.
Now comes After Midnight, the long-awaited follow-up from Gardner-the-director (he’s enjoyed a prolific career in front of the camera, popping up in everything from Joe Begos’s Bliss to Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s celebrated Spring — both actually serve as producers here, with Benson also featuring in a small role). With a similar vibe and look to The Battery, but a wider scope, the movie is yet another indication of Gardner’s impressive talents both on and off screen, even if it sometimes falters in the execution.
Related: Bliss [Frightfest 2019 Review]
Opening with the striking image of a woman (Brea Grant, playing Gardner’s on-screen girlfriend), strolling through the tall grass, After Midnight is, by all accounts, a relationship drama first and foremost. Flitting between the early moments when a weirdly beardless Gardner, as Hank, and Grant’s lovable Abby, are first moving into what she memorably terms “the Texas Chain Saw Massacre house,” and the present day, when she’s disappeared with only a non-committal note left behind and he’s left to defend the place from…something with just a shotgun, the film gradually fills in their love story with subtlety and grace.
Much of the action revolves around her birthday, which, it must be noted, includes some festive cunnilingus, sending a message to all the DJ Khaleds of the world that pleasuring women is something anybody in a relationship with one should be doing more often (but especially men). Although they seem fairly loved up, Hank’s reaction to Abby leaving is almost nonplussed, suggesting maybe she’s done so before, or he isn’t pushed chasing after her, even if he has some idea where she’s run off to. Seemingly unemployed, and with nothing more pressing than the monster who visits him each night, Hank continues moving slowly from day to day, stirring coffee with his finger rather than washing a spoon.
There’s a listlessness to After Midnight. You can feel the humidity and stickiness, similar, funnily enough, to TCM. It’s also got some of Honeymoon‘s DNA, in the treatment of an outwardly happy relationship suddenly thrown into a breakdown via the arrival of an otherworldly entity. This could easily become a Valentine’s Day favorite (its release on the most romantic day of the year hardly seems like a coincidence) for horror fans looking for something sweet but not schmaltzy, with claws but not necessarily relentless gory violence.
As Hank is terrorized on a nightly basis by the unseen creature, it’s heavily suggested he’s simply drinking too much, not sleeping, and maybe even hallucinating the creature as a result. On the other hand, maybe the monster is a metaphor for his commitment issues, which become more apparent as the film goes on, spelled out on Grant’s face as she sadly watches him confidently telling a group of friends they won’t be having a baby any time soon. There’s so much inferred through furtive glances between the pair that it seems likely the monster isn’t real, but this is still a horror movie and, although there’s nothing shown for ages, not even a glimpse, the first look at the creature is genuinely great, the reveal expertly-timed, particularly from a genre fanatic’s perspective.
It’s quite clearly a man in a suit, too (Keith Arbuthnot, one of the puppeteers on last year’s Child’s Play, according to IMDb), which adds to the tactility of a movie in which the sweat on Gardner’s brow or the offshoots of alcohol his friend enthusiastically soaks up at the bar can almost be smelled through the screen. In spite of the dire circumstances of both Hank’s relationship and his fighting off a monster on a nightly basis, After Midnight isn’t a dry film. There’s a great deal of humor, particularly with the regular visits from Benson’s skeptical, unnamed local cop.
Likewise, Hank’s drinking buddy, the constantly chattering Wade (Henry Zabrowksi), is a lively addition, delivering several hilarious lines about scary stuff he’s watched (“It wasn’t a horror movie, it was the Discovery Channel and it was during the day,” he recounts as the duo search the surrounding area for the monster) while always remaining a loyal and supportive friend to Hank. After Midnight is a compelling relationship drama first and foremost, and the friend group who gathers at Hank and Abby’s house is just as important to telling this story as they are.
It’s a pity we don’t learn more about Wade or Benson’s cop’s partners, but the focus is on the central couple, so it stands to reason the two biggest influences on Hank, who spends much of the movie fending for himself, would get more to do here. Everybody shines, however, in an entertainingly strange karaoke sequence, during which the portraits of fantastical creatures adorning the walls are clearly visible, making another subtle point about the monster’s veracity. Gardner himself even takes the mic, in one of the movie’s sweetest moments, as a declaration of love for Abby. They may have their issues, but we never stop rooting for these crazy kids to work things out.
After Midnight represents a softer version of Gardner, both as a writer-director and actor, than we’ve seen before (though he plays a pretty solid boyfriend in Bliss, particularly as the protagonist loses her grip on sanity). He shows a remarkable control of tone and pacing, while a couple of long shots (including the aforementioned look at Grant, which introduces us to the world of the movie) confirm Gardner has learned a lot from the previous two outings, as different as they were from each other, about how to set up an angle to best showcase his characters. Likewise the cinematography, from long-time collaborator Christian Stella, with whom Gardner also edited and co-directed the film, is lovely, all sun-dappled trees and elegantly rotting wood.
To Gardner’s great credit, After Midnight succeeds as both a sweet romantic drama rooted in real-life experience and a tense creature feature with more than a few well-timed jumps. His script is sharp, the performances naturalistic and lived-in. Although the film bears comparison to other movies, including the zombie flick that put Gardner on the map, it’s an impressively unique prospect and will surely find a similar following with smart genre fans just as The Battery did. Hopefully, if there’s any justice in the world, we won’t have to wait as long to see what Gardner does behind the camera next after this.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Jeremy Gardner, Christian Stella
Writer(s): Jeremy Gardner
Stars: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Justin Benson, Henry Zebrowski
Release date: February 14, 2020 (select theaters and On Demand)
Studio/Production Company: Rustic Films
Run Time: 83 minutes