“Against the Night” isn’t a terribly good movie — it’s mostly a patchwork of clichés, stock characters and low-voltage shocks culled from dozens of similar small-budget thrillers — but it isn’t an entirely useless one, either. In fact, one can easily image it serving as a film school teaching tool for students eager to learn how to make the most of limited resources while producing a first dramatic feature.
No kidding: The movie is almost entirely interiors, shot in a preexisting location (Philadelphia’s long-shuttered Holmesburg Prison) that presumably required little or no dressing to be suitably atmospheric. To provide some semblance of marquee allure, there is one recognizable supporting actor — Frank Whaley, who very likely was able to complete his performance in an afternoon. The other roles are filled by young unknowns who compensate with enthusiasm for whatever they may lack in polish.
Given that writer-director-cinematographer Brian Cavallaro’s resume includes several credits in reality cable TV, it’s tempting to assume his tongue was somewhere in the vicinity of his cheek as he cobbled together a plot about an amorally ambitious videographer who talks his buddies into helping him shoot a ghost-hunting documentary within the spectacularly creepy confines of an abandoned prison. Hank (Luke Persiani) is a somewhat creepy fellow; his idea of a prank is filming the sexual congress of two friends without asking their permission beforehand (which, of course, gives Cavallaro an excuse for a fleeting display of naughty bits). Nevertheless, he manages to convince eight of his party-going friends that it would be “pretty fun” for them to wander about and act scared in front of his strategically positioned cameras during a long, dark night of production. It helps, of course, that he’s able to reinforce his powers of persuasion by offering each of them $200 for their participation.
Hank waits until they’re actually on location before telling the gang that, back in the day, a twisted scientist performed biochemical weapons experiments on inmates at the prison. Does that mean the place might be haunted by their restless spirits? Maybe. Or maybe there are extraterrestrials afoot. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t take long before someone or something starts killing the intruders as they make their way through the pitch-black corridors with flashlights and night-vision vidcams. (The bogeyman, it should be noted, appears to have taken fashion tips from both the 1981 and 2009 versions of “My Bloody Valentine.”)
The extended cat-and-mouse game is at best mildly suspenseful, but Cavallaro deserves some credit for finding ways to say “Boo!” without dwelling overly much on full-bore gore. And Whaley merits a kudo or two for adding a smidgen of gravitas to the proceedings in scenes that bookend the main storyline. He’s cast as an inquisitive cop who doesn’t believe the account given by a survivor of the slaughter. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out his fate, should it?