After Midnight

Director: Jim and Ken Wheat
Judie Aronson, Marg Helgenberger, Marc McClure

Although I freely give my opinions of the movies I review for this web site, and sometimes my opinion about a movie is negative, I never forget that making a movie - any kind of movie - is an incredible amount of hard work. With that thought in mind, sometimes I feel guilty panning a movie despite all the hard work the makers clearly put into it. But at the same time, I realize that people who make movies not only have to be careful while making a movie, they have to know what they are getting into in the first place. If I were offered the chance of making a movie, I would first consider if I know enough about the particular genre the movie falls under. Though I have reviewed a few arthouse dramas for this web site, for example, I would probably turn down the chance to make one myself since I don't exactly jump at the chance to watch any that cross my path. Simple domestic dramas, on the other hand, would probably have some appeal to me since I have personally experienced for myself many different kinds of relationships, and all their ups and downs. From all that, I know how people act in various situations, and I believe I could depict some sort of domestic drama that audiences could identify with. While on that same note, I think I would be willing to try certain kinds of comedy as well. While slapstick and other kinds of raucous comedy don't really appeal to me, satire on the other hand seems very attractive to me. There are some subjects that peeve me enough that I would love to make fun of them. But I also relish comedy that explores situations we can identify with, such as the look at the Christmas holiday season through a child's eyes in the movie A Christmas Story.

But I would definitely be open to the chance to try other genres, provided that I felt comfortable with the particular genre project that I was offered. Horror would be one genre I could potentially find interest in. Though there are some horror projects that I would turn down. For example, I would turn down horror projects involving zombies, because I think that the whole zombie thing has been done to death and there are no longer any fresh angles to the subject. But I really want to talk about a particular kind of horror movie I'd love to do, and that is horror anthology. That is, as you probably know, horror movies consisting of several short stories instead of just one long story. I have loved this kind of storytelling ever since I discovered reprints of EC comics, and I have watched (and read) so many examples that by now I have a pretty good idea of what works and does not work with horror anthologies. One key attribute to a horror anthology working is with how the characters in the story act. For the most part, characters acting very goofy and unbelievable does not work, as was painfully illustrated in the Tales From The Crypt television show. What you need is a combination of characters written to act fairly seriously, and actors who know these roles should be played seriously. A little tongue-in-cheek may be okay at times, but otherwise you should respect the audience. Another key attribute to a horror anthology is with how the stories should end. There should be some sort of big twist near or at the end to surprise the audience. Even though the stories in a horror anthology may be short, audiences don't want to see predicatable endings over and over in the same movie.

I will admit that while I feel I know the essential ingredients of a good horror anthology movie, I also know that executing them in just the right way would still pose a challenge to any filmmaker. You've got to do it just right. Considering that, despite my love of the horror anthology genre, After MidnightI have found horror anthology movies to miss far more often that succeed, this may be a genre that poses a more than average challenge to filmmakers. Though it could also be that I have watched and read so much the genre has to offer, it now takes a lot to impress me. But I still like to give the genre a look when I have the chance, and when I found a copy of After Midnight in a dollar store, I was eager to give it a look. And not just because it was a horror anthology movie. It was written, directed, and produced by brothers Ken and Jim Wheat, who in their careers have written and/or directed some interesting movies like Silent Scream, Pitch Black, and Lies... and some turkeys like The Fly II, The Birds II, and It Came From Outer Space II. After Midnight, an independently made production, was picked up by a major distributor, but barely released to theaters. That might sound like a bad sign, but I feel I should point out that the distributor was MGM/UA, which was in bad shape at the time. So as you see, I had absolutely no idea before watching the movie if it would be good or bad - which just increased my curiosity. Anyway, to the movie. Like most horror anthology movies, After Midnight has a wraparound story that brings up the three main stories. The wraparound story concerns psychology college professor Edward Derek (Ramy Zada, Out Of Sync) who invites his students one night to his home where he gets them to tell scary stories to him and the other students. As you probably guessed, the stories that are told are the three main stories that follow. And you probably also guessed, this framing device has its own horrific plot, that being that one of the students (Jillian McWhirter, Rage) senses there is danger nearby, not knowing that it's a former student of Derek who has a grudge against his former professor.

More on that wraparound story later. The first story is called The Old Dark House, and it centers around annoyingly stupid married couple Kevin (McClure, Pandemonium) and Joan (Nadine Van der Velde, Shadow Dancing), who after a night out, find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere after their car gets a flat tire. Nearby, they find the seemingly abandoned title dwelling, though they still decide to investigate it just in case there may be someone there that could help them. Of course, something is up in that house, and soon Kevin finds not only has his wife has gone missing, but gets subjected to creepy terrors. As you might expect, there is a twist near the end, though I have to confess that I didn't find it much of one. One reason is that it happens much too soon, with the Kevin character only having gone through a small amount of terror before getting to the very end. Matters are made worse by the fact that the limited amount of terror Kevin goes through isn't particularly horrifying by itself; I can't picture anyone in his situation really getting worked up about what Kevin experiences. In fact, the story as a whole has a big matter-of-fact feeling towards it that doesn't allow mild creepiness to bubble up at any point. Getting back to the twist, I have to admit that when it's revealed, it brings up several pointed questions that are never answered, like how no one else got a flat tire before Kevin and Joan did. The one touch in the entire segment that I did appreciate was when Kevin and Joan talk about the house's notorious reputation when walking up to it. Normally in circumstances like this, the characters give off a lot of contrived exposition. But in this case, they only give a few details, each seemingly knowing that the other knows a great detail about the house. The story as a whole still stinks, but I do give credit where credit is due.

The next story has the title A Night On The Town. Four annoyingly stupid female high school students go out intending to have the title activity, eventually stopping at a service station in a rough part of the city when they get low on gas. In short notice, they encounter the service station's worker, a psychotic man (Luis Contreras, Extreme Prejudice) who tries to attack the girls. The girls manage to escape from the man, but are soon after pursued by the man's three dogs, who are very vicious. Strangely, this story has absolutely no twist ending at all; its ending kind of just peters out instead. Still, the story could have worked as a kind of variation of the famous 1973 James Brolin-starring made for television movie Trapped. But while the story has a bit more bite than the previous story, it all the same fails in the end, the main reason being the characters. Contreras' character doesn't come across as extremely threatening in the first half of the story; he just seems to be just going through the motions. The four girls, as I said earlier, are annoying stupid, so there's very little sympathy for them. Even when one of their numbers gets cut down during their fleeing, the remaining girls don't come across as particularly upset about the loss of their friend. As for the dogs, they don't really come across as a formidable foe; they don't seem to be that mean or vicious. The only part of the whole story that really engages the viewer is the first minute or so when the four girls escape from the psycho and attempt to drive away. There is a little juice here, enough that promises that the story is picking up and building to great terror and suspense. That promise ultimately proves to be a lie, but I do give credit where credit is due.

The last of the three main stories is All Night Operator. It involves an annoyingly stupid telephone operator named Alex (Helgenberger, Species) who is still working despite having a broken leg and getting around with crutches. Alex works at a telephone answering service that serves a soap opera actress named Vanessa (Jordana Capra, Miracle Mile), and Vanessa is being harassed by a stalker named Richard (Alan Rosenberg, The Wanderers). When Richard feels that Alex is blocking his messages to Vanessa, he sets his sights on Alex. Remember when I said that I give credit where credit is due? Well, this story stars off extremely well, though not in any way resembling horror or suspense. The first few minutes where Alex is talking to her boss, manages to get that perfect balance of being realistic while at the same time being very engaging. And I will admit that when Alex subsequently starts to get calls from the stalker, a feeling of building terror does slightly start to build. Unfortunately, when the stalker starts to take things in a much darker direction, things quickly fall apart. For example, when Alex finds out from the stalker that he has broken into Vanessa's home, does she promptly call the police? Nope. And when Alex figures out that the stalker is coming after her, she makes several stupid decisions during her attempted escape from her workplace that had me groaning out loud. To make matters worse was the very end. Not only did the ending not have any kind of twist at all, the story just, well, ends what seems to be in midstream. It plays like the Wheats simply ran out of money and were unable to come up with a more definite conclusion.

As for that wraparound story that I mentioned earlier... well, I should reveal that when it comes to wraparound material in horror anthologies, I almost always find them to be the weakest part of the movie. They come across as not only very predictable and lame, but as obvious padding. When it comes to After Midnight, the movie unfortunately does not break with tradition. The wraparound segment does have a twist at the end that is a bit more ambitious than you usually get in wraparound stories in anthologies, I admit. But the build-up to it is so utterly lame that the ambitious twist comes off as undeserving to be linked with the rest of the movie. For example, Allison seems to have some sort of psychic powers that her friends know about, but what exactly they are are not properly explained. And Professor Derek's behavior is for the most part so out of touch with reality that it's a miracle that the College Board did not fire him ages ago. The Wheats do manage in some ways to make this wraparound segment fit with the rest of the movie, but not in positive ways. The wraparound segment boasts that same low key feeling aforementioned in the three main stories. Also, the movie looks and feels really cheap, ranging from the washed-out cinematography to the low tech special effects. To sum things up, After Midnight is an especially poor example of the horror anthology movie, even if you haven't seen as many examples of the genre as I have. Pretty much all of the blame for its failure can be placed on the Wheat brothers; this is definitely one time when the Wheat wasn't separated from the chaff.

(Posted October 16, 2021)

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See also: Black Sabbath, Freakshow, Twists Of Terror