There’s a monster terrorizing screenwriter/co-director Jeremy Gardner’s protagonist in “After Midnight,” and he doesn’t know why, what it is or where it came from. After 83 minutes, we still don’t know, either, but at least it has become clear this is one of those films that “defies categorization” by identifying with a marketable genre it’s nonetheless not really interested in.
Originally titled “Something Else” when it premiered at Tribeca last year, Gardner and collaborator Christian Stella’s film certainly wants to be something other than “just” a horror film, but … what? Ironically for a movie whose hero is accused of evading commitment, “After” also flirts with being a relationship drama, an indie-folk musical, a quirky comedy and whatnot. But none of these things ever quite coalesces, leaving their vehicle a jerry-rigged contraption of variably interesting, likable and skillful elements that only add up to one rather arbitrary goof. Cranked Up is opening it on two U.S. screens Feb. 14, simultaneous with on-demand launch.
Though they seem idyllically happy together in the way-too-many flashback Kodak moments we get of Gardner’s Hank and his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant), at the film’s start she’s already left their rural Florida home, leaving a cryptic note. He figures she’ll return, but as days turn to weeks, a sense of abandonment grows acute.
Worse, each night since her departure, the isolated house that’s been in his family for generations has been under assault from some roaring beast that leaves deep scratches in the (now-barricaded) front door. Abby’s local-cop brother Shane (Justin Benson) figures it’s a black bear, and that Hank’s rifle-clutching “monster” hysteria is just heartbreak and booze talking. But he doesn’t hear or see what Hank does — which is to say, a dang scary monster of some sort.
“After Midnight” has a lot to like, particularly in the early going, before we’re too worried about where it is or isn’t headed. Stella’s widescreen photography of the central Florida locations is handsome; he and Gardner come up with some diverting editorial gambits; the “falling-down house” where Hank lives has a pleasing, funky authenticity. It’s questionable just how authentic Henry Zebrowski’s very Florida Man performance as good-old-boy sidekick Wade is. No matter, since this nonsensically prattling cracker caricature is quite funny.
After a while, though, it starts to feel like the filmmakers are just shoehorning things in because they like them, not because they serve any organic narrative or other purpose. There are songs on the soundtrack (and briefly live in a bar sequence) by a couple No Depression-style acts. Then at a climactic party scene, people jokily sing karaoke so Gardner/Hank can not-at-all-jokily sing a Lisa Loeb song in a voice that is very nice — too nice, really, for a character meant to be so haplessly unpolished.
Halfway through the film, the prodigal girlfriend returns, revealing that their relationship wasn’t nearly so idyllic as Hank preferred to think. But the problems revealed in a couple longish, stagey monologues are pretty banal. Those should’ve been better worked into the script’s entire progress to avoid arriving so late, and seeming so trite.
Speaking of late arrivals, “After Midnight” finally does remember again — after forgetting for quite a while — that it’s supposed to be a creature feature. It does so in such perfunctory fashion you can’t help but wonder if the only reason this project lackadaisically embraces being a “horror movie” is because horror movies get funding, and distribution. (Thirtysomething dysfunctional-couple indie dramas, not so much.) It’s one thing to expand a genre by making room for atypical ideas; it’s another to use that genre as a desultory hook for other ideas that remain disconnected from one another.
There’s appeal in the rural atmosphere, attractive packaging, and engaging performances. But where the directors’ prior features (“The Battery,” “Tex Montana Will Survive!”) were loosely held together by shaggy, off-kilter humor, this exercise feels both more heartfelt (in spots) and less focused, its conceptually haphazard nature dulling the impact of a broken love story on one hand and a supernatural-or-whatever thriller on the other. It’s not enough just to be offbeat. Defy whatever rules it might, a movie has to find its own beat, and “After Midnight” still seems to be weighing its options when the final credits roll.