Directed by: Jeremy Gardner, Christian Stella. Starring: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Henry Zebrowski. Runtime: 1h 23 min.
Mild spoilers follow.
After a decade-long storybook romance for Hank (Jeremy Gardner) and Abby (Brea Grant) in small-town Florida, Abby disappears in the middle of the night leaving a cryptic note saying she’s going away for awhile. Hank begins processing this as his life falls apart. Coinciding with this is a monster who tries to break into his home every night.
Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella’s After Midnight can fit cozily into the mumble-gore subgenre of independent filmmaking – where the film has a focus on naturalistic acting and naturalistic dialogue. Their film has both of these aspects but they bring that to the creature feature part of horror, as, unlike the traditional mumblecore film, it feels like something is always happening in this film and that, for the most part, it always has something interesting to say.
That has to do with the great pacing where the romance and horror of the film is interspersed from the very beginning. There are charming, well-directed scenes of romance between Hank and Abby and we soon catch on that these are charming dreams of their time together, as Hank then gets woken up by this creature trying to break into his home. These transitions are spot-on in filmmaking.
Gardner and Grant’s chemistry is great in these scenes, too, as Gardner is likable as someone who is very relatable on a human level, and Grant is always charming in general, and she’s relatable because of what she wants from this relationship, too. They’re a fun pair. This aspect of going between the heartwarming romance and horror truly encapsulates the tone writer Gardner (who also co-directs with Stella) is trying to strike of simple euphoria that gets taken away in an instant and turns to terror. It’s this push-and-pull that helps maintain the viewer’s attention in some of the quieter moments.
And, yes, as this is a reflective film about a relationship, there are quiet moments. The film works as both an allegory for heartbreak as the creature coincides with her leaving. The film depicts the obsession of going over every aspect of your relationship and figuring out where it went wrong; thoughts that creep back in at night. This is where it gets insightful dissecting the relationship, and it’s more thoughtful in the third act when it really gets dissected and it gets into the fear of commitment and all that good stuff.
On the other hand, sometimes it is just a movie about a monster who attacks at night. We’re not entirely sure throughout if it’s real or not, but there’s convincing evidence that suggests there is something (with claw marks and gore, specifically). I loved that Gardner and Stella leaned into the creature feature of the film because much of this is a waiting game to see the creature on the film’s poster. I was honestly worried we would never see it, but luckily there are those hints that suggest it’ll make a cameo at some point.
That horror is a delight but there’s a surprising amount of comedy, too. A lot of that comes from Hank’s buddy Wade (Henry Zebrowski) who looks like he’s having an absolute blast. He’s the buddy that has everyone laughing, but the perfect thing is Gardner keeping a straight face, like when Wade nervously goes on about how the monster could be a cat and how terrifying they can be, as they’re walking around looking for the creature. It’s awesome.
The music is great, too, with the very indie soundtrack and the super fun mix-tape song at the centre of Hank and Abby’s relationship. I won’t spoil the song, but it’s the perfect choice. The direction, too, is precise with every decision, as is the cinematography by co-director Christian Stella. There are moments here where the frame has empty space and I feel like I’ve been studying frames of horror films especially since Ari Aster’s Hereditary and how much he puts in his backgrounds. This just creates an underlying tension even in some of the happiest scenes. That exact way how they create a subconscious anxiety in writing, direction and the film’s look is very smart.
After Midnight started streaming on Shudder on Feb. 11 in the U.S. only as a Shudder Exclusive.