'After Midnight': Film Review

After Midnight - Publicity Still - H 2020
Courtesy of Cranked Up Films
Heartfelt hybrid struggles to get the balance right.

Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella's hard-to-categorize film forces a romantically troubled man to face not just heartache but a monster nobody else believes in.

A relationship-in-crisis drama masquerading as a creature feature, Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella's After Midnight might actually intend its title's echo of Richard Linklater's Before trilogy: Before Midnight dug into the destructive resentments that accumulate in a long-term relationship; After Midnight turns them into an actual monster. Lopsided in its balance between sentiment and scares, it's a very peculiar genre pic that will make the most sense to those familiar with the films of two of its producers — Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, whose trippy sci-fi outings like The Endless also balance the fantastic and the intimately human.

Taking the lead role as he has in his two prior directing ventures, Gardner plays Hank, a scruffy lifelong resident of central Florida who's in love with Brea Grant's Abby. We meet the couple in a warm sequence set near the start of their romance: Offering her an "experiential" birthday present, he brings her to a decrepit old house his family owns, where he treats her to a dubious Georgia wine dubbed Peanut Noir. We're just settling in on their flirty, young-love wavelength when the film offers a smash cut to the middle of the night, watching as a tense Hank blasts a shotgun hole through this house's front door. Something's out there, it seems, trying to get in.

Cut to a lonesome morning, with Hank staring at a note in which Abby apologetically informs him, "I had to go away for a while...sorry." It's hard to say how clear the film intends to be in its opening scenes, but we come to understand that this note arrived 10 years after Abby moved into the house with Hank, and the shotgun episode (and others like it) happened immediately in the note's wake. Right after Abby left, Hank began seeing some kind of monster lurking in the woods; it tries to enter the house in the wee hours every night, but nobody in the nearby town believes him. Whether it's real or not, the monster's driving Hank a little crazy.

Any sensible genre fan will immediately suspect a possibility Hank acknowledges much later in the script: Maybe Abby somehow is the monster? But viewers would be wise not to expect the film's metaphorical linking of heartbreak and deadly peril to be realized so literally. They'd be wise not to expect much at all, in fact — because, while it's ostensibly about a man fending off a horrific beast, the movie's much more concerned with long flashbacks to the couple's happy days together and with asking why this fella never made an honest woman of his girl.

As screenwriter, Gardner shows little restraint, supplying talky scenes in which Hank tries to maintain appearances around Abby's brother Shane (a cop, played by Benson) or his hapless pal Wade (Henry Zebrowski). Once Abby escapes silent flashbacks and reenters the film's present tense, she and Hank trade long monologues about what has gone wrong between them. The scenes would be more affecting if more of these issues had been hinted at during Hank's period of stir-crazy solitude, but the two actors do look credible as a couple finally having a long-delayed hard talk.

Meanwhile, After Midnight takes old monster-movie wisdom to extremes: The beast tormenting Hank is featured prominently on the film's poster, but you might begin to worry the movie itself will never offer more than a quick sighting of a claw through that hole in the door. After a while, one stops wondering: The pic focuses so solidly, and for so long, on the question of whether Abby and Hank will stay together, that any whiff of the other matter starts to sound like a bad joke. It's hard to say whether you're supposed to laugh or not.

Production company: Kavya Films
Distributor: Cranked Up Films
Cast: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Justin Benson, Henry Zebrowski, Ashley Song
Directors-editors: Jeremy Gardner, Christian Stella
Screenwriter: Jeremy Gardner
Producers: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, David Lawson Jr.
Executive producer: Venu Kunnappilly
Director of photography: Christian Stella
Composers: Eric Krans, Jen O'Connor

83 minutes