There’s a case to be made that Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella’s After Midnight could feasibly be viewed as a stealth sequel to Richard Linklater’s third chapter in the Before trilogy. Indeed, the quietly devastating Before Midnight articulately explored how the passing of time and corrosive resentment can erode compatibility within a long-term relationship. After Midnight takes the genre route to delve into how heartache can make you probe into some deep, sometimes ugly recesses of the mind, and how a relationship in crisis can create monsters. Perhaps literal ones.
Set in-and-around a remote house in rural Florida, the film sees Hank (co-director and scriptwriter Jeremy Gardner) deal with the sudden disappearance of his girlfriend, Abby (Brea Grant). She leaves a cryptic note as her only explanation, and her absence sees Hank’s mental (and physical) well-being begin to crack. “Ever since you left, some kind of thing has been coming out of the woods every night,” he tells her over voicemail. And he’s got the scratch marks on the front door to prove it.
Part romantic drama, part creature feature, this stunning genre hybrid weaves the languages of both horror and romance (with the emphasis being on the latter) with great aplomb. It takes the ‘metaphorical monster’ approach previously seen in films like The Babadook and A Monster Calls and playfully toys with the horror staple, leaving the audience guessing as to what is really going on. Has Hank lost the plot completely, meaning that the monster is a manifestation of heartbreak conjured into reality by subliminal trauma? Or is there actually a real monster trying to claw itself into his house? (Leave it up to German distributors to unambiguously – if fittingly – spell it out with the Deutsche title After Midnight: Die Liebe ist ein Monster (“After Midnight: Love is a Monster”).) Gardner and Stella shrewdly sustain a sense of ambiguity by keeping the possible creature unseen for most of the film. What they do show us are some of the couple’s happier days via idyllically-lensed flashbacks. By all rights, this timeline-hopping structure could have come off as a cheap, sepia-toned tactic to fill in some narrative gaps, but it works here as a way of heightening the central character’s sense of grief and involves the spectator into working out what happened to Abby, as well as to further question to what extent Hank is a reliable narrator.
Running at a svelte 83 minutes, After Midnight is a taut and confident gem that benefits in no small part from a knowing smattering of humour – which is often linked to the excellent soundtrack – as well as one perfectly timed last-act scare occurring over a cover of Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’. It’s a truly memorable and potentially divisive beat that toes the line between shocking and grotesque. Whether you think it works or not, that it’s more hilarious than horrifying, or that the film as a whole is too lopsided in favour of the romance, there’s no denying After Midnight’s status as a future cult classic for midnight screenings. Your move, Linklater.
After Midnight / Directed by Jeremy Gardner, Christian Stella (US, 2019), with Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Justin Benson. Starts July 16.