Friday, May 26, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Something Evil's Lurking In The Dark

Year: 1982
Director: John Russo
Cast: Melanie Verlin, Lawrence Tierney, John Hall 
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s very easy to make a name for yourself with a relatively sizeable horror hit. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to break away from that name once you’ve made it. That’s what Wes Craven learned whenever he wanted to make a drama film. But it’s even harder when that hit was Night of the Living Dead, the seminal 1968 classic that more or less changed horror forever. There’s a reason only hardcore fans know about George Romero’s non-zombie movies. The public wasn’t ready for anything else.

This probably explains the ad campaign for NotLD screenwriter John Russo’s Midnight, which boasts that “the DEAD Drink the BLOOD of the LIVING” and in certain synopses posits that our heroes venture into “the land of the living dead.” As you’ve hopefully learned from my fraught relationship with slasher posters, this in no way reflects almost anything about the content of Midnight, which is more of a Texas Chain Saw riff than even Texas Chainsaw 2. At any rate, neither the movie promised nor the movie delivered is particularly good.

Why do I do this to myself?

It’s very easy to define Midnight by the other, better movies it reminds you of. The villains are the Texas Chainsaw-esque progeny of a mother (Jackie Nicell of The Majorettes) straight out of Carrie – a Satanist who believes that any intruders on their property are demons who must be ritualistically sacrificed. They won’t come back into play until irritatingly late in the film, but they are the mentally handicapped Cyrus (David Marchick), the bearish Luke (Greg Besnack), the fresh-faced Abraham (John Amplas of George Romero’s Martin), and the solitaire-obsessed spiritual medium Cynthia (Robin Walsh).

And so we meet their new crop of victims, some 60 miles away at this point. 17-year-old Nancy (Melanie Verlin) is escaping from her sexually abusive stepfather Bert (actual actor Lawrence Tierney of Reservoir Dogs) and hitches a ride with road tripping college friends Tom (John Hall) and Hank (Charles Jackson). They camp out in the wrong neck of the woods and are captured by the murderous clan, who want to sacrifice Nancy for their Easter Satanic communion. Bert catches wind of this and is hot on the trail to rescue her, because who better to root for than an alcoholic child molester?

Seriously, f**k this movie.

The defining feature of Midnight is that it has absolutely no defining features. It’s constantly morphing from domestic drama to American Honey nostalgic road trip movie to an indictment of small town racism and police brutality to slasher and back and forth into oblivion. Pretty much the only thing these scenes have in common is the obscenely cheesy easy listening tune “Midnight Again” that underscores the entire monstrosity.

As that song proves, Midnight has no idea how to manage its tone, and with some of the deeply bleak subject matter it explores, that’s a truly dangerous thing to not have control over. It’s more depressing than it is scary, and even the film’s most effective moment – in which a character shuffles off this mortal coil far sooner than expected – is too grim to be thrilling.

Not that thrills were really an option for this mummified bore of a film. With its wooden staging and flat performances, Midnight is almost two-dimensional. Characters weakly go about their business like they’ve just taken massive doses of Nyquil, delivering dialogue from unmoving automaton faces. And don’t get me started about the action sequences, if you can call them that, Nancy knocks out her stepdad by lightly tapping his head with a radio, and the entire third act sees her affecting her escape in a noncommittal, maybe even slightly bemused haze.

You can just taste the fear in this scene.

It’s a shame that Midnight flies so far off the rails, because certain scenes are pretty chilling in their stilted, low-fi kind of way. The fear is more conceptual than anything, but the scene where we see the warped mother commanding her brood of children or the incidents where the mild annoyance of back country racism actually flares into a physical threat are relatively effective.

Unfortunately it’s frequently more depressing than it is scary. Most slasher films are seedy, but few feel this fatalistically amoral. I refuse to let go of the fact that we’re meant to cheer on an abusive stepdad, and the potentially interesting racial tensions in the plot are nothing but window dressing for a facile exercise in misogyny. There are a couple feints at religious discourse in the third act, but they come far too late to do any good.

No, Midnight is an unbearable slog, however clever it thinks itself to be (did I mention Russo adapted this from his own novel? It’s hard to hear criticism when your ears are attached to a head so firmly ensconced up one’s own ass). It frequently cuts away from the action for unbearably long scenes of Nancy’s mother and stepdad blandly reciting dialogue over coffee, but it’s not like they were cutting away from anything particularly interesting to begin with. It’s just a dismal exercise in how broken a film can be when it comes to pacing, tone, and – oh heck – general quality.

One to miss.

Killer: The Satanic Family
Final Girl: Nancy (Melanie Verlin)
Best Kill: Tom Savini allegedly worked on this film, and the only evidence I can find of that is two excellent slashed throats in the third act.
Sign of the Times: Every character, male or female, has the exact same shaggy, lopsided haircut.
Scariest Moment: Tom and Hank are menaced by police officers convinced that they’re guilty of murder.
Weirdest Moment: Nancy is put in a cage, where she meets a random woman who affectlessly delivers exposition for three full minutes.
Champion Dialogue: “Lord have mercy if you decide to camp out here. Didn’t you hear me say some people have been murdered?”
Body Count: 13
  1. Jimmy Peterson’s Sister is ritually sacrificed.
  2. Revered Carrington is stabbed to death.
  3. Sandra is strangled in the tub.
  4. Hank is shot in the head.
  5. Tom is shot in the chest.
  6. Billy is stabbed to death
  7. Sharon has her throat slit.
  8. Gwen has her throat slit.
  9. Bert is stabbed in the back,
  10. Cyrus is shot.
  11. Abraham is shot.
  12. Cynthia is scythed in the throat.
  13. Luke is beat with a mallet, shot, and lit on fire.
TL;DR: Midnight is a crummy Texas Chain Saw riff that's even more disappointing for its potential to be something better than it is.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1107

1 comment:

  1. "It’s a shame that Midnight flies so far off the rails, because certain scenes are pretty chilling in their stilted, low-fi kind of way." Yeah, I get that way about some films, like Manos. But they're still, you know, what the kids call "bad."

    Sorry this one hurt you, B!