The intersection between crime thriller and horror is an interesting place to be, even if it doesn’t fully pay off in “Midnighters.” This debut feature for TV editor-director Julius Ramsay and his neophyte scenarist brother Alston creates a world of trouble for protagonists whose involvement in a fatal road accident is just the start of a truly unpleasant New Year’s Day. Operating in the bad-things-keep-getting-worse mode of grotesque suspense mellers from “Blood Simple” to recent Aussie Sundance breakout “Killing Ground,” the Ramsays’ film isn’t in their class, as it lacks the memorable plot ingenuity and character writing that distinguish the best such efforts. Still, it’s well-crafted enough to attract genre enthusiasts beyond its LAFF premiere.
Thirtyish married couple Lindsay (Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee) have moved from the big city to a New England small town, not entirely willingly — her job at a local bank seems to have been the determining factor and is the only such keeping their heads above financial water. (Given that circumstance, it’s a puzzle that they’ve bought an enormous old house in need of considerable renovation … beyond the fact that, of course, it makes a more atmospheric setting than the modest condo they might more credibly afford.) He’s a failed professional athlete whose chronic lack of employment has really started to wear on her nerves.
Thus neither is in a very celebratory mood as they drive home from a New Year’s Eve party she had to attend for work’s sake. Then on a dark country road, a pedestrian looms before them around a bend, seen too late to avoid collision. As the man seems beyond hope, the couple decide against calling the police to risk the consequences of a DUI fatality. Instead, they opt to clean up the mess as best they can and hide the body, discovering en route that this dead stranger (whose nearby car had stalled out) was apparently headed to their place — presumably for malevolent purposes, quite possibly connected to Lindsay’s younger sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine). The latter is a perpetually in-crisis looker whose open-ended “visit” may be occurring because she’s on the lam from dangerous intrigue in NYC.
While the other two are busy elsewhere, Hannah discovers the corpse isn’t entirely dead after all, in her panic finishing the job with the man’s own gun. This considerably ratchets up the level of potential criminal prosecution for all concerned, and a subsequent morning visit by local cops (Andrew Rothenberg, Joseph Anderson) does nothing to quell the household’s fears. While mutually hostile Jeff and Hannah — each seeing the other as a rival leech off Lindsay — take care of some theoretically final tracks-covering, one “Detective Smith” (Ward Horton) turns up for further questioning. Alas, Lindsay soon discovers he is no detective, and probably no Smith either. Rather, he’s someone with a pressing interest in the accident victim, as well as Hannah, a certain claim ticket and a missing pile of cash. He’s also a scary psycho who enjoys inflicting pain a bit too much.
Things rapidly escalate (or rather degenerate) from there, with details of Hannah’s recent past trickling out, grievous harm suffered by various and nearly everyone eventually wanting to kill nearly everyone else.
Rhode Island-shot “Midnighters” is brisk and eventful. Yet as a thriller driven by constantly worsening straits, it’s not as cleverly twisty as it would like to be, nor are the well-played characters granted enough dimensionality for their dynamics to be all that surprising or convincing. The deteriorating marital bond between leads would provide more of an emotional core if Jeff weren’t so callowly self-interested we wonder what Lindsay ever saw in him. Space cadet Hannah’s backstory, while responsible for drawing peril here in the first place, remains too murky. We have no trouble believing Horton’s cobra-like villain is capable of anything, but he too could have used a little more scripted depth.
The film has one inspired reversal of fortune (involving a garage door), but the fadeout feels miscalculated — we’re supposed to be struck by the response of one surviving character to their “reward,” yet by the screenplay’s logic that person is the figure here who would be least impressed by it.
Nonetheless, Julius Ramsay (who’s edited numerous episodes of “The Walking Dead” and other series, in addition to directing a few) evinces a good feel for claustrophobic suspense punctuated by bursts of visceral violence. The latter’s enthusiastic sadism, combined with an “olde dark house” vibe, push this thriller close to horror terrain at times.
DP Alexander Alexandrov’s periodically arresting widescreen images highlight a well-tuned tech and design package that makes the most of a small-scale story no doubt produced on modest means.