Deaf protagonists are a curiously untapped market in horror. The best example of their use is arguably in Mike Flanagan’s Hush, which sees a masked killer descend upon a home occupied by a deaf woman whom, he quickly realizes, isn’t as helpless as she seems. Midnight, which is, shockingly, the debut feature from South Korean filmmaker Kwon Oh-seung, plays with that idea to an excruciatingly nail-biting extent. Upping the ante extensively, it’s not just one deaf woman who’s at the mercy of a killer here, but her sweet mother too. Through an increasingly intricate journey across a darkened city, the two women fight for their lives against a ruthless killer who’s got all night to play games with them.
Midnight kicks off with footage of a woman walking home alone at night, a setup that will always be ripe for exploration in horror chiefly because it’s so simple and depressingly universal. She’s attacked and killed by a young man who immediately stands out not just because he isn’t bothering to conceal his identity very much but because he’s so damn good looking. Let’s just get this out of the way first, the killer here, Do-sik, is so handsome he could be in BTS. He is distractingly gorgeous. Actor Wi Ha-Joon is a heartthrob in his home country, known predominantly for TV shows like “Romance is a Bonus Book,” so it makes sense he’s playing against type by using his looks to subvert expectations. Even knowing Do-sik’s dark intentions though, it’s kind of hard to resist the urge to jump in his van.
Our hero is Kyung-mi (Ki-joo Jin), a deaf woman who works as a customer service agent and, although she seems very nice and accommodating, isn’t afraid to stand up for herself as evidenced by some rude words signed into a conversation with dodgy suits during a business dinner. Kyung-mi’s relationship with her mother is warm and unforced. Kyung-mi isn’t a loser, she simply has her priorities in order. After meeting up one night, they cross paths with So-jung (Kim Hye-Yoon), who was attacked while returning home from a blind date – “go change unless you want to die” her overprotective brother quips – and now lies injured on the street near Do-sik’s van. Kyung-mi is at a loss about how to help her, but in the process of doing so, she catches the attention of the murderer, who focuses in on all three women as his unwitting prey for the night.
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Kwon Oh-seung’s debut is remarkably assured, with every tiny detail considered from the ominous purple glow of Do-sik’s van to the various devices Kyung-mi and her mother utilise to alert them someone is coming – both of which are used to incredibly tense effect here. Midnight ratchets up the tension slowly, with shattering precision. The sound design is impeccable, frequently cutting all noise out completely to drop us into Kyung-mi or her mother’s shoes. The score is a juddering, throbbing, omnipresent beat, while the cinematography captures the night-lit city beautifully. It keeps escalating, the director, who also penned the script, consistently playing with our expectations as he utilizes his protagonists’ hearing impairment to shock us with their assailant’s sudden presence. Midnight is a consistently scary film, even though gore is surprisingly kept to a minimum.
Do-sik quickly establishes himself as a master of disguise, which leads to some truly nail-biting moments as he essentially hides in plain sight while quietly threatening the confused women he’s cornered. A police station-set sequence is merciless, as Do-sik taunts mother and daughter, while an ensuing fight is contained and well-choreographed, bested only by a subsequent alley battle. Midnight is relentlessly unpredictable. Even though we’re clearly rooting for the central group to make it out alive, there’s no guarantee anybody is going to survive the night. Thankfully, although Kyung-mi is very capable, she’s also fallible and far from superhuman. Likewise, So-jung is no damsel in distress, even if she seems like it at first. As for the dastardly Do-sik, we get several key insights into his bruised psyche, especially the moment he shrilly demands not to be laughed at.
It’s rare to get characters and a killer who are equally compelling, but Midnight nails the balance between the two. The five central performances are equally top notch, from the deaf mother-daughter duo to the brother and sister who clearly love each other more than they’re letting on and, of course, Do-sik himself. At its core, this is a ruthlessly simple cat and mouse story but the hallucinatory sound design, increasingly high stakes, and genuine emotional connection we feel for the characters makes Midnight a hugely effective horror movie. You might bite your nails down to their nubs, but you’ll have a great time doing it. Absolutely essential.
WICKED RATING: 9/10