Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: For the final Watch This series of the year, we’re again highlighting some of the best movies of 2020 that we didn’t review.
Defiantly a Florida film, with the afternoon rainstorms, liquor sweats, and chaotic wildlife that such a description suggests, After Midnight is also a deeply romantic story about fucked-up people and a wickedly funny monster movie that delights in the seduction of the unexpected. Equally concerned with women’s pleasure and men’s issues, encompassing the perceptive romantic sprawl of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy as well as the adrenaline rush siege mentality of Aliens, it is what its original festival title promised: something else.
A house looms above all. The backwoods two-story monstrosity, beautiful and dilapidated, has been in the family for as long as Hank (writer, co-director, and star Jeremy Gardner) can remember. Unafraid to get loosey-goosey with time as it teases out a languid mystery seasoned with bacon, booze, and the human drive to not be alone, After Midnight unfolds Hank’s relationship to the property in parallel with his relationship to Abby (indie horror icon Brea Grant, a bedrock of moving and effective performances in genre film for several years now). Abby has been gone for a while, and in her absence, something has been attacking the house, leaving behind massive claw marks that could be the handiwork of a wild animal (this is Florida, after all) or something worse.
From its first shot, the film seems determined to use the audience’s expectations of contemporary genre cinema against it. Gardner and co-director Christian Stella—whose joint zombie movie, The Battery, was so good that it rendered the whole of The Walking Dead redundant—eschew easy subtext and worn-out tropes. Hank and Abby’s relationship, which culminates with a breathtaking 13-minute single take where the two have it out about who they are and what they’re doing, would be captivating even without the monster. For all those who might admire After Midnight as a pure creature feature (the monster, to be clear, is superb), there are plenty more who will appreciate its extrication of the toxic masculinity inherent to so much genre fandom. Still others will admire the little pleasures, like a breakout turn from Last Podcast On The Left’s Henry Zebrowski as Hank’s hunting buddy, Wade, who steals every scene he’s in, chugging bar mat juice (don’t ask) and popping peanuts like it was his job.
After Midnight is a strange movie, and the rare one that can be called genuinely surprising. It pulls off all its tonal shifts, baring its heart with unexpected musical moments (more films should have Verdian karaoke throw-downs in the third act), landing the occasional jump scare absolutely crucial to the plot, and never betraying its characters. Comedy, horror flick, love story, hang-out film, relationship drama, crucible narrative wherein characters have to confront the absolute moral truth of themselves: After Midnight is all of these things at once, and it accomplishes its genre fusion without stretching itself thin, or getting tangled up in its moving parts.