GORE IN THE STORE
AFTER MIDNIGHT ****
Directed by Jeremy Gardner.
Christian Stella. Starring Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Justin Benson, Henry Zebrowski.
USA 2019 Certificate: 15 83 mins
Released on Special Edition Blu Ray by Arrow Video on 8th June 2020. RRP £24.99
Few sub-genres are as overcrowded as the 21st century zombie movie, but sometimes a movie with heart, soul and wit stands out from the crowd of wannabe Shauns and Dawns. Jeremy Gardner’s $6000 THE BATTERY, influenced equal parts by David Gordon Green, George Romero and JAWS, was one of those rare gems. At a time when many of us are experiencing an extremely comfortable, slightly dull microcosm of apocalypse while feeling the impact of being in a single place for too long (“It does something to you…”), THE BATTERY’s meld of the absurd, the horrific and the mundane feels more relevant than ever. Gardner gave us, for once, two ordinary characters – with recognisably selfish and maddening traits - that were truly worth rooting for, finding humour and pathos in the rare luxury of time afforded to them. What do we do when the world is ending? We laugh, we cry, we annoy each other, we get drunk, we make the terrible choices we always did – and we pass the time with our own version of the childhood favourite “Alphabet Game”. Plus, the climactic use of a song named “We’ve Got A Lot To Be Glad For” has never felt so poignant. Thank you, Rock Plaza Central.
THE BATTERY is afforded a beautiful blu-ray disc of its own in this Arrow release of AFTER MIDNIGHT, its spiritual successor from the same team. This means that you have no choice but to abandon your obsession with death tolls and neighbours openly flouting “the rules” in favour of a double bill treat. Reuniting with THE BATTERY’s producer-cinematographer -and now co-director Christian Stella- Gardner continues his love affair with character-driven, unashamedly emotional, indie-arthouse horror movies. Following the $6000 THE BATTERY, this was shot in 8K with an actual crew and the backing of fellow filmmaker Justin Benson (who also plays a cop) who got involved when the project was named “Something Else” and he was immersed with his own, astonishing SPRING. With a title nodding blatantly to a not dissimilar trilogy from Richard Linklater, Gardner’s take on man-in-a-suit cryptozoology monster movies is, like its predecessor, prone to wide shots, long takes and improvisation – and is unabashedly personal.
The Florida shot picture unfolds over two different time periods, ten years apart, to capture the (d)evolution of a once promising relationship. At the outset, Gardner whisks cute girlfriend Brea Grant to an old rural family home that likens to the farm house from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. The rapport, laughter and orgasms they share capture the warm, excitable buzz we all associate with those early days of getting to know each other. Stella’s cinematography basks the scenes in a radiant glow, giving them the sense of rose-tinted memories of something lost – while the idealised vision of Grant’s character, centre of frame while Gardner is often partially cut out of our view, confirm what we’re watching is the male protagonist’s elegiac perspective of the early days of their partnership.
Gradually the cracks are revealed, the personality clashes and individual life goals intrude on perceived perfection. She wants to build a family unit, he doesn’t. She vanishes for a substantial part of the narrative once the passion has cooled and the rift has grown. Gardner is a man obsessed, in danger of losing grip completely. He spends his nights listening out for the monster he believes to be responsible for the prominent claw marks in his front door. He has turned into a bedraggled Fox Mulder, getting drunk at the local club, listening to country music and fixated on either capturing this mysterious, possibly fictional creature or getting it on camera so he looks less like a kook.
Gardner, in a role that feels as partly autobiographical as Ben in THE BATTERY, is a convincingly likeable and frustrating protagonist: we watch has he becomes a hard drinking, paranoid loner, burying his sorrow from the one that got away with thoughts of something extraordinary. There are creepy nocturnal hunts nodding to first person modern monster movies, but mostly it’s an authentic portrait of a fractured relationship with empathy for both parties: Grant’s character, necessarily off screen for half the movie, is a poignant portrait of a woman fearful of treading water, of getting stuck in the same town forever, of waking up one day to realise you’ve already reached your early thirties with nothing to show for it.
As with THE BATTERY, the bleakness is alleviated with perfectly pitched humour. We’ve all met (and been) people like this, warts and all. Henry Zebrowski steals his scenes as a deluded, verbose drinking buddy, feeding Gardner’s TV-watching, monster-hunting existence with his own fixation on conspiracy theories in a country where every lake has a lake monster. The kind of guy who knows how vicious all cats can be (and suspects the “monster” could be Grant’s cat, monstrously mutated by toxic waste) and sups the tiny drops of booze spilled on beer mats, Zebrowski watches too much TV and takes too seriously the paranormal murmurings in every rural American town. Typical of the film as a whole, however, he’s not just one note comic relief, he’s another local character with depth and regrets of his own.
Like Gardner’s breakthrough movie, AFTER MIDNIGHT is built around its characters, not its familiar horror threat- though the monster is superbly used and one moment will make you spill your extra-large lock down packet of salty living room snacks all over the floor. Following Gardner’s bravura singalong to “Anthem for the Already Defeated” in THE BATTERY, this has a show stopping, bold, full-length Gardner performance of Lisa Loeb’s popular “Stay”, a memorable anthem in itself for Those Of A Certain Age. Even more impressive is this film’s equivalent to THE BATTERY’s eleven-minute, Volvo-set single take. Here, a fourteen minute, crucially positioned dialogue sequence between the two leads is the kind of raw, authentic piece of character work seldom found in the genre – a credit not just to the performers, but to the conviction and confidence of the filmmakers.
Extras - Arrow Video’s two-disc set is a treasure trove for Gardner fans. He and Christian Stella join forces for a “commentary on a shoestring, just like our movies” – amusingly patched over at points where glitches marred the original recording. The two are charming and modest about their own accomplishments, while offering great insight into the low budget filmmaking process, from a fog machine named Pumpkinhead (“the foggiest movie of all time”) to the ways in which they achieved intimacy during that incredible long take. There are amusing shout outs to Larry Fessenden, explanations for key decisions, a fun connection to the creature from SPRING and a great story of how the karaoke scene was written beat for beat for Brian Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It For You” – until the song proved prohibitively expensive. There are further featurettes with the actors, including a Lakeland Q & A, a nice quarantine interview with Justin Benson and a skit involving scooters following the Fantastic Fest screening of the film.
A second disc contains a beautiful new Blu-Ray master of THE BATTERY, offering an excuse (as if you need one) to revisit the movie, with or without the commentary from its creators. The stand out extra from the whole set, however, is “Tools of Ignorance”, a feature length documentary about making THE BATTERY tracing Gardner’s filmmaking career back to a PSYCHO parody featuring Furbies and a feature about evil killer plastic bags. It offers a vivid, honest study of no-budget filmmaking, equal parts frustration and laughter. The background of the infamous masturbation sequence (originally intended as a rape scene!) is a valuable insight into how one decision entirely changed the film's tone. Elsewhere, Gardner waxes lyrical about JAWS and long takes, and the behind the scenes tensions generated by disagreement about the ending are caught on camera for cringe-a-long viewing. Stand out moment: Gardner advises “Masturbation scenes in movies are hard to pull off” with a straight face and no dirty Sid James-style guffaw.