Home Video Hovel: After Midnight, by Alexander Miller
Horror anthologies are always fun because it loosens up the genre, and the conventions don’t feel contrived because the consolidated narratives require a certain expediency. In these short stories, there’s room to explore, play up the camp factor, incorporate humor and irony, switch time periods, or really do just about anything. It’s a sandbox for horror films. Having said that, this freewheeling structure can yield compelling narratives as well as enable some lazier aspects to storytelling; after all, it’s just a short, easy to toss off. So where does that put the 1989 film After Midnight?
The film starts out with two college students on their first day of school, Cheryl (Pamela Adlon) and her friend Allison (Jillian McWhirter) who is immediately reluctant to attend their course called “The Psychology of Fear”. Those apprehensions prove valid as the wild-eyed Professor Edward Derek (Ramy Zada) opens class by holding a loaded pistol to a cocky students head (as well as the rest of the class), wrapping up his lesson by putting the gun under his chin and blowing the back of his head off. Of course, this is all a ruse, and his unorthodox methods are put to an end when a student filed a complaint to the Dean. And to think, he had the nerve to complain; he only had a pistol pointed at his forehead.
Prof. Derek is now teaching from a more traditional curriculum, but don’t worry, if his gun-wielding antics weren’t enough, you could still join the unhinged teacher off campus at his house for scary stories! There’s got to be a better way to get those behavioral science credits. It’s this shift that makes the Professor an informal crypt keeper, and although stories get passed from person to person, it seems this character doesn’t get much right. Going into the film blind it was a relief that this turned out to be an anthology because this professor guy is annoying, but matters only got marginally better once we edged away from the circle of ancillary characters.
Our first tale is the general warm-up – a happy couple is stranded, enter a spooky house, and trouble ensues. The problem here is that this turns into a Scooby-Doo-esque irony tale; at the risk of spoiling the material I’ll forego the details, but the final sting occurs when someone is killed because of a prank went awry. The reveal explains why the buildup feels disingenuous; the scare factor is minimal, and the resolution isn’t all that telling, risky, or scary, felt more like a story you’d see on a true crime reenactment show.
After Midnight doesn’t suffer because it’s a bad movie, but an uninspired one. In the anthology construct, if one story is weak, guess what, give it a few minutes, and we move on to something new. But our second foray into “the psychology of fear” doesn’t fare very well either. In it, a group of teenage girls enjoying a night out run into an unsavory character and are chased by a pack of his dogs. Are the dogs possessed? Are they were-dogs? Is there a local vet experimenting with steroids? Did some nuclear waste get into the Alpo plant? No, they’re a pack of pissed off dogs. Sure, it’s not crucial to have an explanation for everything; usually, it’s to the benefit of the film when there’s ambiguity at work. But the straightforward execution isn’t interesting, and the very concept defaults to lazy tropes to create suspense (the car won’t start, someone can’t close a door in time). Horror fans will likely recognize Penelope Sudrow from Nightmare on Elm Street 3 as the girl whose head is shoved into the TV by Freddy as he exclaims, “welcome to prime time bitch!”
In keeping with the tradition of things, the third story is the meatiest, but still a bit of a letdown. Alex, (Marg Helgenberger) who works for an answering service, is terrorized by a stalker who has been making menacing phone calls and messages. Matters escalate, and in the lineage of creepy phone calls in horror movies (When a Stranger Calls, Scream, Black Christmas) this seems to contradict its contemporaries by deflating the mystery and suspense by showing the heavy instead of the more efficient device of only hearing him.
There are ways to make more tangible elements scary, and the film does have the technical chops with some garish lighting, where contrasting primaries splash up against each other. However, when there’s nothing garish to emphasize it only contributes by underlining what the movie is missing.
The conclusion to these types of movies is a sting where the characters are dead, and the crypt keeper is revealed to be an otherworldly emissary of death, or the devil himself, but in a more exciting turn After Midnight goes for something else. Someone decides to get back at the professor for humiliating him in class. Though there’s not much logic in their standoff, there’s fire, beheadings, and an ax-wielding stop-motion skeleton man. And if your movie can have an ax-swinging skeleton, then it should have an ax-swinging skeleton.
After Midnight isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not an overlooked classic either; I’m sure there’s a cult of people who grew up watching this on VHS and are endeared to it, and now it’s available on Blu-Ray for those to enjoy. Thanks to Shout/Scream Factory and their diverse array of horror thrillers, After Midnight looks great and features a feature-length commentary from the directors, plus an interview with Jillian McWhirter. Not essential, but occasionally fun and slightly off-kilter enough to satisfy genre fans.