Co-directed by Christian Stella and writer/lead actor Jeremy Gardner, “After Midnight” seems like a metaphorical monster movie, but proves to be something all its own. Perhaps it’s fitting that its original title was “Something Else.”
Gardner stars as Hank, a Southerner whose life starts to fall apart after his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant) disappears, having only left a vague note informing him of her departure. Her brother Shane (Justin Benson) is the local sheriff, and seems not to be worried about where she went or why. Their friend Wade (Henry Zebrowski) acts as the film’s comic relief — think of either of the titular characters in “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.”
“After Midnight” jumps back and forth between the present day and the earlier years of Abby and Hank’s 10-year-long relationship. The shifts aren’t hard to follow, as the present-day scenes almost always feel darker and dingier than the happier days that came before. A lot of the memories that Hank relives are what I’d classify as the “Lost Love” trope.
Meanwhile, after Abby leaves, Hank is being stalked by…something. He’s constantly drinking, and clearly going through an emotional rough patch, so he’s far from a reliable narrator. But the idea of this being a psychological movie fades as we get small glimpses of the monster throughout the film. You barely see anything — in the style of “Jaws” or 2014’s “Godzilla” — but it’s just enough to make you think he’s not losing it completely.
The third act of this movie goes in a completely different direction, with about 15 minutes of one-on-one quiet conversation between two main characters kicking it off. It leans much more into drama territory than you might expect. Then there’s a pretty insane conclusion to “After Midnight.” If you’ve seen the recent film “Ready or Not,” you know how crazy some genre movie endings can get, and this one follows a similar path.
A lot of this movie feels familiar. As mentioned above, the filmmakers didn’t shy away from tropes, but it’s also the atmosphere, the settings (including a bar where everyone seems to know everyone à la “Cheers”) and the characters themselves. The soundtrack consists of mostly folksy music, with the exception of a karaoke scene. Most of the actors aren’t big names, or particularly recognizable, but you feel like you’ve seen them somewhere all the same.
Co-directors Stella and Gardner make some interesting visual choices too. One scene is shot in pitch blackness that becomes lit only when Hank fires off his shotgun, possibly one of the best ways to build tension that I’ve ever seen. Another way they ratchet up the suspense is through editing; around the midpoint of the film, the edits are used to add visual interest in addition to creating atmosphere around the plot.
In the end, “After Midnight” is about two-thirds love story and one-third monster movie. It doesn’t cover a lot of new ground, but that specific cocktail of romance, gore and suspense isn’t one you see too often, and this is a great addition to the shortlist of movies that do it.
“After Midnight” will have its second Fantastic Fest screening on Wednesday, September 25, at 11:30 p.m.
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Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, Jackie has called Austin home since choosing to attend the University of Texas, where she graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism. She loves spending time with her dogs, writing about pop culture in all its forms and spending time with friends – eating, drinking and doing trivia.