Victimizing Youth the Right Way
Midnight Movie (2008) Starring Rebekah Brandes, Brea Grant, and Justin Baric. Written by Jack Messitt and Mark Garbett. Directed by Jack Messitt.
Midnight Movie's first surprise is its quality. This was a low-budget slasher film that went almost straight to video. (It played a few festivals, then reportedly had a very limited release before quietly turning up at video rental stores.) Nevertheless, it looks more expensive than any installment of the Saw series, and with a better release, it might have grossed more money than Saw as well. Midnight Movie offers good cinematography, solid special effects, and mostly good acting from the cast of newcomers. (Brea Grant made this before landing her roles on "Heroes" and in Rob Zombie's Halloween II.)
The next surprise is the writers' imagination. Ironically this film starts off feeling unoriginal. Following the usual slasher formula, Midnight Movie introduces the villain with a kill, then goes to the (admittedly fresh) credit sequence. Next we have the Meet the Meat segment, introducing the various people who will be victimized by the stalker. We meet the young people who work in the movie theater. We meet the few patrons who arrive for tonight's showing of a little-known horror film.
We also see the detective arrive. He is looking for the killer, and he knows the killer is obsessed with this film. He stakes out the theater.
We promptly figure out which character will be the Final Girl, the woman who will survive through the climax. Rebekah Brandes' character may or may not be a virgin, but she is the only character with a back story. She also displays sweetness and vulnerability, while other characters display crudeness. No doubt Brandes will be the Final Girl.
We find Scream-inspired meta as characters comment on horror films and unwittingly comment on their own situation. Midnight Movie quickly reaches levels of irony, however, that Scream never approached. Characters don't know that the horror movie they came to see has been replaced with live feed of the killer attacking people in the building. They comment on their reality as though it were a movie (which for us, of course, it is). When they see on screen their friend dying, they assume, rationally, this must be a prank, and they laugh as they witness the horror.
Hitchcock always thought horror was more frightening if the attack took place in public with the victim unable to get bystanders' help. Other films have incorporated that badly, having cops hear cries for help they dismiss as kids joking around. Midnight Movie found a way to do this believably and even do Hitchcock one better. The bystanders here are not just unhelpful, they laugh and cheer. This makes for highly effective horror.
The familiar formula we find in Act I lulls us into dropping our guard and leaves us unprepared for the surprising twists the film takes through Acts II and III. Midnight Movie borrows from many films (recognizable sources range from A Nightmare on Elm Street to Halloween 5) yet improves on them and synthesizes them into something fresh.
In most slasher films, the victims are all teenagers who would probably survive except that they do incredibly stupid things. (I Know What You Did Last Summer is only one example.) Midnight Movie fixes that. The victims range in age from the gray-haired cop to the pre-pubescent boy who snuck into the theater, and none of these victims are stupid. These characters, young and old alike, are smart and proactive heroes. They figure out their predicament as quickly as any of us would in their circumstances, and they react just as sensibly. First, they try to get the hell out of there. When they find themselves locked in, they come up with other plans. They rarely sit helplessly; they keep thinking, keep trying different moves as they struggle to comprehend their unthinkable situation.
Critics who disliked this film complained that the rules were unclear. The villain is supernatural, but we never learn his limitations. I usually hate horror movies with unclear rules, but not this time. I love how Midnight Movie lets us think we're in a safe, predictable horror flick, then pulls our expectations out from under us. The undefined rules help keep us off-balance and keep us more empathetic to the off-balance victims.
In other horror films, victims dumbly split up so they can be picked off one by one. Here, the victims are smart enough to stay together, not that that saves them.
Even the boy is smart. When they figure out the movie itself is haunted, it is the boy (Justin Baric) who comes up with the idea of unplugging the projector. While the idea fails, it is as smart as any other idea these victims dream up.
A few critics have argued children should be left out of slasher films. Personally, I have no problem with including a child so long as the film directs our empathy to the child and does not invite us to relish the child's suffering. Some slasher films violate that principle (ex. Freddy vs. Jason), but others follow it well. In Halloween 4, child actress Danielle Harris did such an outstanding job of drawing our sympathy, her character was made the lead of Halloween 5, giving us the first Final Girl who was literally a girl. (Harris, now an adult, also appeared in the Rob Zombie Halloween films; she's almost as big a fan-favorite as Jamie Lee Curtis.) Following after the Halloween examples, Midnight Movie shows this child in jeopardy, but does not show him suffer, and keeps us rooting for him to get away.
The most original moment, though, comes at the end. Midnight Movie goes where Halloweens 4 and 5 dared not: it has the child kill one of the villains. This child does not kill the villain by accident (à la Domestic Disturbance); he does it deliberately to save his older sister. Yes — a child gets to be a hero. On the DVD commentary, director Jack Messitt admits he was hesitant to allow that. He knew letting a child dispatch an adult villain was breaking the rules. But Messitt's boldness is what makes this film shine.
The closest precedents this moment has are in Child's Play 2 and Friday the 13th Part IV. Neither of these films, however, were as bold. In Child's Play 2, a child does assist in dispatching the villain, but the villain is not an adult human but rather a haunted doll. The image of a child "killing" a doll is less threatening to adult viewers. Friday the 13th Part IV (which actually bore the false-advertising title Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) ended with young Corey Feldman dispatching serial killer Jason. But the film then immediately bowed to ageism by suggesting Feldman is now as evil as Jason. (None of the adults who have dispatched Jason over the 12-films-and-counting series have been portrayed as anything but virtuous.)
Midnight Movie does not pretend to be anything more than pure entertainment. On that level, it succeeds wildly. Despite the film's poor release, it is now gaining a cult-following as horror-fans discover this effective and imaginative slasher. Perhaps one day it will appear in movie theaters as it should have all along: as a midnight movie.