Starring: Melanie Verlin, Lawrence Tierney, John Hall
A teenage girl runs away from home because her police officer/stepfather drunkenly tries to seduce her. Hitchhiking to California , she's picked up by two guys traveling cross-country, by committing petty thefts to get by. After avoiding one police patrol, after them for stealing groceries, they fall foul of a family of Satanists who keep their dead mother in the attic. Left alone, the girl tries to outwit the family before becoming one of their sacrifices designed to return their dead mother to them.
We live in a time when filmmakers nostalgically emulate the grindhouse movies of the 70s and 80s. Midnight is one of the movies that you can easily put into the category of original grindhouse. It’s low budget, grimy and on the whole badly acted with some questionably dodgy artistic choices. The thing is, it doesn’t mean the film has no worth or is lacking in entertainment despite the shoddy production values and constraints of its budget. You’ll feel like you’ll need a wash after but the film has interest value for those who regularly buy the Shameless label’s output (where this really belongs - I’m not sure why this got put on the Arrow label!).
Russo does his best to evoke an atmosphere of seediness and small town mentality with the limited resources at his disposal. Almost immediately we’re shown Nancy (played by Melanie Verline) being set upon by her drunken step father Bert (played by Lawrence Tierney). He clumsily paws at her and makes lewd suggestions, causing her to run away in fear for her dignity. Lawrence Tierney is suitably creepy in these scenes, but thankfully, there seem a reticence to go too far with the harassment. Tierney, best known for playing Joe Cabot in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, gets a great scene when lying to his wife about her daughter’s behaviour. Bert cleverly manipulates his wife Harriet (Doris Hackney) into believing that Nancy is misbehaving, thinking she’ll return and tell her mother of her step-father’s behaviour. Due to the nature of the rest of the characters, Bert ends up being one of the good guys, as later he tries to rescue his step-daughter. Of course, we’re not exactly sure for what reason he is rescuing her but he has a go nonetheless.
Russo fleshes out the characters in Midnight and gives the actors chances to shine, even if they don’t actually take him up on it. There are no characters you can really root for; most are unsavory at best.
The two guys that pick up Nancy on the road side get by in their roles as two petty thieves trying to get to Cleveland . Mercifully, they’re not in the film for long.
Russo excels in his direction of one particular scene. A black preacher and his daughter appear and are used as exposition pieces to get across the fact that the teens shouldn’t camp out in the woods because people have either disappeared or been murdered. Both are then murdered themselves and Russo injects a little black comedy into the dark scene of the daughter being dispatched by a local weirdo. It’s a tense scene.
The soundtrack is totally off-kilter and reminds me of a 70s film where the soundtrack songs tell the story as the movie moves along. We hear a suitably cheesy folk song that evokes the revenge flicks of the 70s. Russo was clearly going for an original take on movies like Last House on the Left giving his film a mish-mash of themes and ideas.
Given the budget, Russo still manages to get across an atmosphere of dread through the careful use of isolated locations. The unpolished nature of the movie works in its favour. Fans of “backwood horror” will get a kick out of Midnight, whilst most should be mindful that it won’t stand up to modern audience’s expectations.
6 out of 10 (Wayfarer)
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