In director Jennifer Reeder’s (V/H/S 94) tense Night’s End, the protagonist is a shut-in, whose life is falling apart. Ken Barber (Geno Walker) is divorced and a recovering alcoholic who moved to a new city for a fresh start. The problem is that he doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t go outside. He spends most of his time making YouTube videos on everything from lawn care to life advice. Oh, and he waters his plants, a lot of plants. Forget finding a job. He wants a streaming niche and ad revenue. Yet, his attempts to become a popular streamer turn upside down when strange, and I mean really strange, occurrences happen in his apartment.
This small-cast, single-location thriller is a real gem, a metaphor for life under COVID during the height of lockdowns, filmed under those circumstances. The Shudder exclusive is also an exorcism movie, but one that eschews gross-out moments for genuine scares and a creepy atmosphere. This feature again proves that Reeder is a director to watch.
Life of a Shut-in
Night’s End works so well because of Walker’s performance. He’s likable, despite his myriad of problems and lack of a job. We spend most of the film with him, as one strange thing after another happens in his apartment. It starts with a stuffed bird falling off his shelf and grows from there. Creepy footsteps echo in the hallways. Doors open and slam shut. A ghostly apparition appears in various rooms. This is a film where nearly every sequence deserves attention for what may or may not lurk in the shadows, behind Ken. There’s some great camera work here and tricks on the naked eye.
This is also a movie about the protagonist’s fragile mental state. He barely turns on any lights in his apartment, and the film’s red tones create an eerie and hellish atmosphere. Ken spends most of his time in front of the screen. Even when he’s not streaming, he chats to his best friend, Terry (Felonious Munk), and his ex-wife, Kelsey (Kate Arrington), via screen time. There’s Zoom…..more Zoom…and even more Zoom. These scenes will remind viewers of all the holidays we spent chatting with our loved ones over computer screens or Facetime. While it’s a way to connect, it also feels so distant.
Both the small cast and screen time reflect the film’s tough shooting schedule and circumstances. Reeder filmed it last summer, during strict COVID guidelines. She told The Chicago Tribune last month, “We were just antsy to make something.” She shot Night’s End in just 13 days and with a budget of just under $500,000. Most of the film was shot in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood and features a host of Chicago theater actors, including Arrington and Michael Shannon, who plays Kelsey’s new husband, Isaac. Yet, the tight budget and small cast work in the film’s favor. This is one unsettling film that relies on atmosphere and sound more than anything else. It doesn’t need a barrage of special effects or an onslaught of jump scares to work. Much like 2020’s Host, it’s horror in front of and behind the screen.
A Ghost and Maybe a Demon
Eventually, Ken learns that a spook named Roberta Wellwood (Morgan S. Reesh) haunts his apartment. She fell out a window, pushed by her mother, after an attempted murder against the father. Ken learns some of this on his own and through the help of paranormal investigator/author Colin Albertson (Lawrence Grimm), a hoot in his own right. The situation worsens when Colin encourages Ken to use a “spirit jar” to capture the ghost and prevent it from inflicting any harm. Apparently, they only summon something much worse.
Terry especially catches glimpses of some real paranormal phenomenon when he chats with Ken. However, Ken doesn’t even remember what occurred. The attacks grow more and more sinister and violent. However, Ken’s eerie videos earn him countless subscribers. Even Kelsey and Isaac encourage him to keep making videos. Eventually, he gains the attention of Dark Corners (Daniel Kryi), who shares Ken’s videos on his popular channel, earning him an even bigger following. Eventually, they all attempt a live, on-screen exorcism so Ken can earn even more ad revenue.
All of this leads to one heck of an ending that’s part B movie, part humor, and unlike any other exorcism movie you’ve seen. Kudos to Reeder and writer Brett Neveu for creating a film that avoids the cliché. There are no levitating bodies, pea soup vomit, or priests rushing to the scene, yelling, “The power of Christ compels you!” What exists here is something totally unique, born out of extremely difficult circumstances. Most of the cast interacts solely through screen time, while the apartment itself becomes a menacing character, creaky and old, with a haunted history.
A Metaphor for COVID Hell
So far, other than maybe Host, few genre films have better captured the emotional hell of COVID, including the lockdowns and uncertainty, better than Night’s End. As much as the film is about a ghost and demon, it’s more so about Ken’s fractured mental state. Before the divorce, he had problems, namely with drinking. How many relationships suffered during COVID, and how many people turned to the bottle? Further, initially defeated, Ken won’t even look for a job. What’s the point? It’s easier for him to stream all day and night. He excludes the type of malaise and mental health struggles that so many faced when forced to hunker down indefinitely.
There are some real scares here, executed perfectly at times under such tight restrictions and a low budget. But Night’s End succeeds because it has a protagonist most of us can relate to. Ken is an everyman, just trying to survive the day, one step at a time. He can’t sleep. He can’t find a job, but he keeps waking up and surviving. That alone is a triumph, never mind once he’s pitted against supernatural elements.
So far, Night’s End is one of Shudder’s best exclusive releases of 2022. It’s chilling, hair-raising, and also very human. It avoids the usual cliché exorcism arc in favor of a nuanced story that really explores mental health struggles. It’s likely more and more genre movies will come out that reflect the collective fears of the COVID pandemic. So far, Night’s End is one of the strongest. The heavy screen time and Ken’s genuine struggles will feel all too familiar. Parasite director Bong Jon-ho recently named Reeder as one of 20 filmmakers shaping cinema. Night’s End is a feature that will continue to elevate her status.
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.