We all have struggles in our life, money, relationships, failures of the past, family and more. The idea that things can change within a moment and we could be shoved into a choice or situation that is unthinkable. How elemental sins like greed, trust and deception become focal points. One of the joys in attending a genre film festival is the wealth of choices you have to watch, review and experience. While in Ohio last October, I attended the Nightmares Film Festival. I was lucky enough to catch the tense thriller by the Ramsey brothers called the Midnighters. Written by first-time screenwriter Alston Ramsey and directed by Julius Ramsey (The Walking Dead and Flashforward), the Midnighters is a streamlined conflict that is clever, emotional and connects the viewer to situational horror that challenges you throughout.
Midnighters is a prime example of smart indie filmmaking framework and budget. Watching this film on multiple occasions, the Ramsey’s understand how to work within the perimeters of this model. They create a dark humanity by turning the screws for effective drama with very little visual splash. The stories narrative is simple that realizes on powerful performances and challenges the audience to step into the characters shoes. With a bare bones film like this, the ensemble drives and elevates on different levels. The casts chemistry drives the film giving a reality to the escalating conflict that unfolds. Led by the dynamic Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes and Fashionista), she takes on a role of Lindsey which tests her range and adds depth to what could be simply a victim. Essoe’s ability to go deep and change emotional gears is a testament to her talent.
Lindsey’s family includes and Jeff (Dylan McTee) and sister Hannah (Peral Haney-Jardine) who make the moral compass spin. Both characters have a darkness to them and dare I use the word… dastardly quality. Essoe’s equal however comes in the character of Smith brought life by Actor Ward Horton. Horton has a charm. An electricity with his slick look and darkness that makes him not only dangerous as Smith but also delivers an unexpected wit and some well-timed moments of levity laid throughout the narrative. His on-screen charisma reminds me of actor Rhys Wakefield performance as the “Polite Leader” in The Purge. Both Essoe and Horton have incredible chemistry throughout. Their scenes feel uncomfortable, dark and yet a bit tempting. Their kitchen scene especially (while waiting for coffee) is one of the best scenes on film this year.
The technical side of Midnighters works. I am not the biggest fan of films cast mostly in darkness, but it works for this feature. Not only is the darkness effective but builds atmosphere. The darkness feels transitional like a symbolic doorway that allows the characters to reveal their true selves. Midnighters feels claustrophobic. As a viewer, you watch this dark shroud the morality. You know this is not a film with monsters or supernatural. You are put in a mindset that makes unsure what may come out of that darkness and how it may affect those lingering with in it. With a blend of space given in the frame for the actors to create and an uncomfortable intimacy which works in tandem with the shadows, DP Alexander Alexandrov (Tilt) allows the characters freedom to execute in his frame. The locations are simple (mostly indoor) with most of the film takes place in the couple’s home.
The sound recording, design and edit builds an edge. Anything placed in darkness or laying in shadow always elevates anxiety, fear and the senses. Midnighters is no different as simple sounds like a spoon stirring, a door closing, a muffled scream or punch connecting is palpable. How it echoes inside the home and lingers tweaks you. This sound dynamic blended with an emotional and mood setting score (Composer Chris Westlake) adds a whole another dynamic putting everyone on edge. Each scene Westlake cultivates a score for feels like a different musical breath that jolts you to attention.
For fans of more graphic horror, the garage torture scenes come out of nowhere and is not only bloody fun but punctuates a very dark drama. It takes you to sadist perspective that is unexpected and lingers to a quick solution. Not since the 2013 Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves have I watched such an effective showcasing of FX makeup and prosthetics being showcased during torture. These scenes are a great example of sight, sound and sensory coming together with genre performance.
The final moments of Midnighters shows how the director is a talented editor as well. His eye on layout, blocking, performance, sound and timing makes a difference in those last couple of minutes. Lindsey lying on the bed after her realization about the situation is perhaps the best example of a challenging puzzle coming together. That one breath she takes and the look she gives upwards as the scene goes to black is compelling and satisfying. It wraps up a very entertaining and crafted thriller. Catch this film right now and see how storytelling with beats of horror challenge, frighten and push you to the brink in the Midnighters.