Writer/director Jeremy Gardner has a knack for using monsters to explore interpersonal relationships. This rings true of his debut, The Battery (2012), an edgy indie zombie buddy pic, and it’s certainly true of his latest, After Midnight, which transitions from a creature feature to a film that strikes at something much richer and deeper, namely stagnation and an urban/rural divide that can complicate a relationship.
The film’s lead, Hank (Gardner), is visited by a monster every night that claws at his front door and howls outside. This occurs after his girlfriend, Abby (Brea Grant), ditches him suddenly. It’s revealed within the closing 20 minutes why she left, and suddenly, After Midnight becomes a solid portrayal of entrapment, best illustrated through the shoddy house and the creature. The home becomes a tar pit, one that exemplifies Hank’s initial refusal to grow as a person and see beyond his rural community.
Trapped in the Past
Fragmented and dream-like, After Midnight’s narrative cuts back and forth between flashbacks and the present. When not sleeping alone on the couch, clenching a shotgun, Hank ruminates on what used to be. This juggling between past and present works so well because it exhibits how Hank romanticizes the past. Nearly every memory the viewer sees is filtered through his lens. For instance, early on, he recalls the first birthday that he celebrated with Abby, in the very same crumbling house. He made a mixed tape for her, a tape with another girl’s name on it. She jokes about it because the couple is young, awash in exciting new feelings for each other. Even Hank’s appearance is a major contrast to the present. In the past, he’s clean-shaven, whereas in the present, he has a thick beard and unruly hair.
In another memory, Hank gifts Abby a kitten, even tying a balloon to the pet. Here, the dialogue is innocent, representing the nascent stage of their relationship. Hank jokes that he needs to untie the balloon from the kitten before it floats away. He also asks Abby if she ever thought that she would receive a gift that could last for 20 years. The thought of something enduring that long gives her pause.
In other flashbacks, we witness the couple painting the house together, singing with each other, and rocking back and forth upon a hammock, snapping pictures. Through Hank’s perspective, we never witness the fights that couples usually have, or the serious discussions about their future and dreams. Gardner saves a lot of that for the last act, once Abby returns. Her return marks the moment when the film shifts. The audience is no longer primarily presented with Hank’s perspective.
A Crumbling House and Relationship
The house means something different to Abby and Hank. For Hank, it’s what he’s always known. It’s been in his family. To him, there’s nothing wrong with it, nor the rural Florida setting where it’s situated. He and his buddies like to hunt, and he’s quite content to own a bar and knock back shots with friends every night. He desires nothing more from life.
Abby, however, yearns for more. When she returns, she slips in during the middle of the day, just as sudden as when she left. Initially, she falls back into her usual routine, acting as if nothing occurred. She washes dishes and cleans up Hank’s empty beer bottles.
Once night falls, however, their issues surface. As they sit in the living room, awaiting the monster, she reveals that she went to Miami for a college reunion and stayed longer. She mentions that she heard a live jazz band, attended a baseball game, and ate tamales. She notes that she pleaded with Hank to go with her, but he was convinced everyone there would be a snob. He wants nothing to do with her big city background. This scene contains some of the film’s richest dialogue and illustrates key differences between Hank and Abby. She’s a college grad who thrives on culture. Hank, meanwhile, is a country boy, complete with the boots and shotgun.
When they have this confrontation, it’s minutes before Abby’s birthday, and she reminds Hank that 10 years ago, they celebrated in the exact same house. So much of their lives has been spent within its walls, in the very living room where they await the monster. She also mentions that everyone at her reunion had kids and a marriage. The house becomes a metaphor for Hank and Abby’s tired relationship and Hank’s inability to realize his partner’s dreams. It takes her leaving and returning for him to understand what she wants.
Perhaps most biting, Abby questions whether Hank would adjust his lifestyle to meet her needs. Would he move into a cramped big city flat? Would he deal with the noisy traffic and upstairs tenants? She sacrificed everything, she reminds him, while he gave up nothing.
Growing Together and Beating the Monster
The film’s ending is important for several reasons. As friends join Abby and Hank to celebrate her birthday, the film loops back to the first memory of the mixed tape. The tape only contains one song, “Stay (I Missed You)” by Lisa Loeb, which Hank performs via karaoke in the present. This fact may denote the repetition of their lifestyle, or maybe Hank simply thought it was cute. Regardless, he’s able to snap them out of their stagnation because he tells Abby that he’ll go anywhere with her, be it a U.S. city or somewhere overseas. Finally, Hank commits to leaving the house and the rural community behind if it makes her happy.
Further, as Hank concludes the karaoke session, the monster attacks him. For the first time, everyone else sees it, including the audience. Ultimately, Hank survives by pummeling it. In retrospect, the monster is a multi-layered metaphor. It haunts Hank when Abby leaves and represents the crumbling state of his mind. It’s defeated when she returns, but it’s also conquered because Hank is finally willing to grow, to become more than a hunter who mounts deer heads on the walls of his creaky home. He compromises to make his partner happy. Once he makes that promise to Abby, they can overcome what troubles their relationship.
In the final scene, bloodied and kneeling, Hank offers Abby a bottle of wine that he saved for her birthday. It is a significant gesture as he spends most of the film drinking beer and even takes his shotgun to bottles of wine because they remind him of Abby. The movie concludes with Hank taking another step into Abby’s world and acknowledging her wants and needs.
After Midnight, like The Battery, uses monsters to explore personal relationships. On one hand, After Midnight’s monster is a metaphor for Hank’s shattered mind when Abby leaves. On the other hand, the creature, like the house, represents entrapment. Only by growing and compromising with Abby is he able to defeat it. Hank and Abby may represent a rural and city divide, but by coming together and acknowledging each other’s needs, there is hope they can make their relationship work.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.