While there are countless horror films across all subgenres that use a literal monster as a metaphor for a deeper, more personal conflict, few fuse those two things as effectively – or innovatively – as Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella’s After Midnight.
Gardner’s follow-up to the wildly eccentric and brilliantly unmoored Tex Montana Will Survive!, it’s a film that finds him on the backswing of that particular pendulum. Favouring a more sedate, contemplative tone, the two films are similarly insular in their storytelling, but After Midnight lands in less madcap and more profound territory. Taking its roots in the well-worn cinematic standard of a relationship in decline, it’s a quietly devastating and smartly observed examination of what it can sometimes take for us to realise what’s truly important.
After Midnight opens in idyllic times. As Hank (Gardner) surprises girlfriend Abby (an ever excellent Brea Grant, The Stylist) with their new woodland home, it’s a view of a relationship if not in its honeymoon phase, then at least in that warm, comfortable period of sheer unspoiled contentment. While the house itself is a fixer-upper, we do not yet believe the relationship is. There’s a natural watchability to Gardner and Grant as an on-screen duo: their interactions have the familiar feel of spending time with friends, and it’s a dynamic that makes After Midnight easy to invest in.
The abruptness with which the film shatters this tranquillity marks a sharp left-turn into territory in which it will spend most of its run-time: with Hank alone in the house – suddenly a far darker, more imposing proposition – trying valiantly to deter an unseen monster that leaves deep, long scratch marks on his door each night. Abby has left suddenly under mysterious circumstances, and with no indication of when or if she’ll return, so we follow Hank and his close family and friends as he tries to carry on as normal, deconstruct the mystery of her disappearance and adapt to life on his own.
It’s curious to watch Hank handle life after – or at least without – Abby. We see him commiserate with his friend Wade (necessary comic relief from The Last Podcast On The Left’s Henry Zebrowski) and occasionally visit increasingly concerned family members, but he mostly grapples with beasts both literal and figurative on his own. This feels, in many ways, like the sort of post-breakup wallowing we’re well acquainted with in cinematic storytelling at this point. It’s arguable that a meaningful search for answers doesn’t truly begin until after Abby returns: until that point, the introspection we see is Hank framing this as something that has been perpetrated upon him, rather than something he may have been complicit in.
This is, I feel, a position many people reflexively default to in the aftermath of a breakup. Regardless of whether the spark has gone, or if you knew on some level that things were in decline, the hurt that comes with someone actively ending things is often as sharp and abrupt as the deterioration was gradual. It’s all too easy to direct the blame singularly towards the person who walked away, when of course it’s almost never that simple. With time, revisiting the relationship with some distance from the irrational haze of a broken heart often sees the more endemic problems – and our own shortcomings – gradually rear their heads. For much of After Midnight’s first half, Hank tackles Abby’s departure with this critical lack of clarity and, loathe as I am to admit it, the film speaks directly to me because this particular monster has been at my door once or twice in the past as well.
The genius of the storytelling here comes in the casual reintroduction of Abby. Re-entering the fray as abruptly as she departed, Hank’s first response is anger, which ultimately softens as we learn the reasons behind her decision to leave in the first place. Having woken up one day and realised that their relationship had been defined by years of unilateral compromise on her part, she redressed the balance all at once: travelling the country and experiencing the art, food and culture she had systematically denied herself for years for – as she relates during the film’s centrepiece twelve minute unbroken shot of a wrenching porchside conversation – “a spot on [his] wall”. Hank is a hunter by nature, and Abby had come to view herself as simply another trophy for his collection.
Crucially, After Midnight does not frame Hank as the villain of the story after this revelation: merely the recipient of a moment of shattering clarity. The ‘monster’ at the heart of the film speaks to the toxic behaviours we can lapse into without realising, and the bad habits that can develop if things are left unchecked, under-evaluated and uncommunicated. As Abby closes out the porch scene as midnight passes on her birthday, her parting musing of “I don’t think your monster’s coming” marks a turning point, and leads to what is one of the most remarkable and eccentrically wonderful endings to any film I’ve ever seen.
For a moment, it looks for all the world as though After Midnight will fall into earnest romcom cliché for its resolution. In front of all their friends, Hank vows to change, serenades Abby with Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’ and vows that they’ll soon blow this two-bit town once and for all. While the film has done the sufficient emotional legwork to just about get away with a move this predictable, the ‘monster’ that’s been sold so hard to us as metaphorical appears unexpectedly and – ingeniously – literalised one last time, as Hank is savagely attacked by it in what is our first real look at this previously unseen terror. As the karaoke party ends with a blood-drenched Hank savagely killing the monster on their living room floor, Abby finds an engagement ring at the bottom of a wine bottle and smiles widely at him, a bold new road to adventure rolling out before their eyes. It’s a fitting representation of his conscious decision to do better, and might be the most earnest and in love anyone has ever looked while sitting atop the corpse of a seven-foot otherworldly hellbeast.
After Midnight is a film which, to me, has profound things to say about the damage that complacency and under-communication can cause in relationships. It can be all too easy to take things for granted without realising the other party’s self-worth is slowly ebbing away, and while it shouldn’t take towering, grand gestures to drive that point home, the sad reality is that sometimes it just does. All we can ever hope to be is better than we were yesterday, and although After Midnight’s route to that conclusion is more offbeat and ultimately bloodier than most, the connection it forges with that idea is all the richer for it.