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'After Midnight' turns the horror of heartbreak into an actual physical menace

We all know how the age-old tale goes: Boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl; boy makes a home with girl for 10 years; girl grows weary of boy’s hesitation to commit with a marriage proposal, as well as his reluctance to be a dad; girl leaves without saying goodbye, leaving boy alone to fend off incursions from a ferocious, unseen monster each night when the clock strikes midnight.

That’s the premise of After Midnight, the latest horror movie from Jeremy Gardner — as if heartbreak on its own isn’t bad enough. Gardner is arguably best known for his 2012 zombie picture The Battery; here, he co-directs with Christian Stella, a producer on The Battery and cinematographer for both that film and After Midnight. Like The Battery, After Midnight is proof that invention advantages a film more than a big budget. Gardner approaches the monster lurking around the story’s edges the same way Jaws approaches the shark: by showing as little of the beast as possible until restraint is no longer necessary. A claw here and a silhouette there is all the audience sees. It’s enough to make us question if the monster is real, or if it’s a figment of Hank’s imagination, conjured by his ingrained and utterly contemporary male slackerdom.

Given that Hank, the boy in this scenario (played by Gardner himself), looks pretty bad off when we meet him in the film’s present-day, it’s a fair question to ask. Gardner’s screenplay (yes, he wrote the screenplay too) is structured around a series of flashbacks: The narrative flits from happier times with Hank and his girlfriend, Abby (Brea Grant), to his life without her. After the split, Hank spends his days drinking too much while the bills pile up — Abby’s the one who handled the money — and his nights cradling his shotgun in his arms while he dozes on the couch, which he’s propped against the front door as a barricade in case the monster attacks.

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Which it does. Something does, anyway; scratches and gouges left in the wood don’t lie. It’s just that Gardner never lets his viewers get a good look at the “something,” and instead gives us a long, hard glance at Hank — disheveled, unkempt Hank, a man burdened with too much beard and loneliness. After Midnight is set in the Florida sticks, and in the sticks, a person can’t walk 10 steps without some random critter snorting or sneezing at them from the bushes. Couple that with Hank’s dejected, self-imposed isolation and his male arrested development, and the idea starts to set in that maybe Hank’s “monster” is actually a creature extrapolated from his surroundings so he can avoid taking responsibility for his circumstances. After all, how can you expect a guy being terrorized in the night to get his life together? It’s just an excuse for his folly, cut from whole cloth.

“We’ve been letting our imaginations draw faces on the noises in the dark since we were living in caves,” says Shane, Hank’s would-be brother-in-law if he’d ever bothered to put a ring on Abby’s finger. “And we always draw sharp teeth.” Shane (played by Justin Benson, who helped produce After Midnight with his partner in horror filmmaking, Aaron Moorhead) reminds Hank that they know plenty of people who’ve claimed to see UFOs and other bugbears, but that science has never found evidence supporting their existence; he clearly thinks Hank is shopping for a way out of ownership for Abby’s departure. Gardner studiously avoids the obnoxious impulse to “elevate” his horror, the trend du jour where a horror movie isn’t really a horror movie, but, say, “a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” But he does hold his monster in reserve, and makes up for it with superb writing, terrific performances from his leads, and a truly gratifying payoff to his 70-minute flirtation with the creature-feature niche. And surrounding all of that, he gets frank about hedging on manhood.

Hank is a sympathetically common American dude saddled with common American dude problems. It’s not that he doesn’t love Abby; his love for her is written all over the movie. It’s not even that he doesn’t love himself, because Gardner isn’t Dr. Phil and After Midnight isn’t that cheesy. Hank simply doesn’t understand that his happiness — everything he needs to make himself content — comes at the expense of Abby’s. She never wanted to stay in the boonies, hours away from city culture; she never wanted to not expand their family, either, though an hour into the movie, when After Midnight takes a sudden turn and Abby finally comes home, she admits that her desire to be a mom snuck up on her. Fair enough. Adulthood takes everybody by surprise.

But Hank stays several steps behind maturity such that it never ambushes him, and so he stays in a holding pattern with Abby at his side. But she can’t wait forever for the man she wants him to be to collide with the man that he is. And while she originally leaves only to go to Miami for her college reunion, we eventually learn that while the reunion lasted for just one day, she’s been gone from Hank for four weeks.

So, of course, Hank is going out of his gourd, fighting with monsters on his porch and firing stray shots at passing SUVs on the road in front of his house. He’s a man-child stuck all by his lonesome in a huge Southern manse — the sort, as Abby alludes to, that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre might take place in.

Hank is a sympathetically common American dude saddled with common American dude problems.

Gardner doesn’t pardon Hank’s behavior. He just feels for him. After Midnight ends up inhabiting a space between horror, romantic comedy, and relationship drama, rotating from one to the others as each scene demands; it’s a breakup movie, a hangout movie, and a monster movie all at the same time. Hank drops by the bar he co-owns with Abby to throw backshots (and gorilla farts) with his best bud Wade (Henry Zebrowski), visits Shane’s bachelor pad for tough love (and bacon), and mopes about his big empty house, waiting either for Abby or the monster to return.

The promise of the latter gives the film a taut throughline that stretches all the way to the last five minutes, when Gardner reveals why MastersFX — the team responsible for creature work in horror films ranging from Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight to Benson and Moorhead’s Spring — was brought onto the production to begin with. The climax makes After Midnight rewarding. But it’s Gardner’s blunt appraisal of self-stunted masculinity that makes the film so thoroughly compelling.