Dying relationships are their own kind of exquisite horror and much like horror films, moviegoers are drawn to serious, dramatic stories about relationships in peril. There is an element of voyeurism in it, a kind of an appeal to a desire to place oneself into the drama or at least identify with what is seen. After Midnight (2019) is relationship horror, mashing up a creature feature with a slow burn analysis of why a loving couple begin to split but does that combination work? Yes and no. Aesthetically and thematically, there is a lot to admire about the film After Midnight, but the whole of the project doesn’t quite land.
After Midnight follows Hank, a man who is grappling with the sudden disappearance of his romantic and business partner of ten years for over a month. During this time, between drinking and feeling sorry for himself, Hank finds himself stalked by a monster in the swamps outside his home every night. Directed by Jeremy Gardner (also credited as the writer) and Christian Stella, the film stars Jeremy Gardner as Hank, and Brea Grant as Abby, his missing partner. The film also features Henry Zebrowski and Justin Benson as confidants of Hank and Abby who he struggles to convince of the threat of the monster that attacks each night.
The film’s strengths lie in a number of elements, the central metaphor is a strong one, while the performances and aesthetics are, as a whole, excellent. The film’s linking of Hank’s anxieties and malaise about his relationship to the monster is excellent overall until the point in which is dropped, right around the time of Abby’s return back to their home. From there it becomes a sort of strange novelty that doesn’t really pay off until the end in a surprisingly bleak and hilarious moment. It’s there that the metaphor becomes far too obvious, however; Hank kills the “old Hank” with vigor and extreme prejudice, eager to move onto the next stage of his life and love, whatever it may hold. Despite the presence of a very real monster in the story, however, most of the dread is manifested in a powerfully awkward and frank argument between Hank and Abby near the end of the film. It’s here that the film is at its best and that the monster metaphor is at its most effective: the couple air their grievances, but Hank, unwilling to move forward keeps his hand on his shotgun on his porch, waiting for the monster to attack, not recognizing the monster that his inattentiveness has created. The sequence is slow and oppressive, the camera zooming in as more and more layers of Hank and Abby’s relationship are torn away from the core problem: Abby wants more from life, and Hank is content with things as they are. It’s the most compelling moment in the film and more raw and brutal than any of the few depicted monster attacks.
So much of the film’s success hinges on the performance of Jeremy Gardner and he does a fine job at playing a sulking manchild, which is absolutely necessary given the central tension of the film. He plays drunk well, and even at his most manic, mopey, or sloshed, there is still a sort of charm that persists and helps explain why Hank and Abby have remained together for over a decade, albeit unmarried. Hank is a functioning adult, but Gardner is able to give him that sort of necessary distractedness that plays out in his scenes with his friends; someone who is hearing how to solve his problems, but not really listening to the people who are saying them. Abby, played by Brea Grant, doesn’t get nearly as much to do in the film, but certainly leaves an impact. She is seen, initially, strictly through Hank’s rosy memories, but her sudden return at the midpoint of the film, however, gives her necessary depth by contrast; Hank saw things one way, but Abby introduces a cold, hard reality into the fantasy. Grant’s excellent in both cases, she looks and appears radiant in the memories, someone anyone can fall in love with, but she also plays someone deeply frustrated and bored when reality sets in on her return. It’s a largely thankless role, but she played it with aplomb.
The two other major performances in the film Henry Zebrowski’s Wade, and Justin Benson’s Shane are a little more uneven. Not necessarily bad, but their roles are largely stock, though they do present some fun moments. Zebrowski, for example, comes off as himself rather than a character, as though the role was written for him. The podcaster/comedian, known so heavily for his manic performances, does come off as slightly subdued, as fits the role of “Florida Man becomes Father” that Wade represents. He gets some fun dialogue and a memorable scene where here drinks from a bar mat, but his character does little else but provides a funny sounding-board for Hank’s thoughts and reflects Hank’s anxieties of being a “settled man.” Benson gets the tougher job playing the skeptical realist and a cop, no less, but holds himself well in the role. He is given the necessary role of drumming up conflict for the ending as the worst dinner guest in a film, second to a literal monster, but it works. His character does feel a bit one-note, however, the cold splash of water on Hank’s issues and little else.
The run-down house out near Florida swamps looks excellent, and as a whole, the cinematography puts in work visualizing the issues the film tackles. Hank’s perspective in his memories is quite literally played as angelic with halos of light around Abby. The violent contrast of the house upon his waking, which happens several times in the film, serves to emphasize the grim reality of his life decaying because of his refusal to move on. As for the monster? The design is fun, especially because the film subverts expectations quite a bit when it comes to how much they reveal. Just as one thinks the monster’s fleeting appearances are necessarily constrained by budget, one finds themselves surprised.
The uneven structure of the film is what harms it most, as it can never quite get the combination of creature-feature and relationship drama right. There are flashes where it happens, but overall, for a large portion of the film viewers may forget about the presence of the monster, more consumed by the horror of a dying relationship. When the frayed threads entwine at the conclusion, however, it is too late. Despite those issues, the film accomplishes a lot during an 83-minute runtime. After Midnight is worth a watch and offers some fun moments, some compelling relationship drama, and a cool-looking monster.(3.5 / 5)
You can watch After Midnight on Shudder.