Midnight Man, the debut feature of Irish director Rob Kennedy, was the stand-out film for me at last year’s Horrorthon (2013), a horror film festival held every year before Halloween at the Irish Film Institute. Seeing this film so close to Halloween (and near midnight on a Saturday) made it all the more compelling, as the story takes place late on a Halloween night, at a remote house on the outskirts of Dublin. This film could be enjoyed at any time of the year though, as it is a genuine examination of fear and a roller-coaster of suspense and tension. Indeed, roller-coasters are referenced in the opening scene, when our protagonist, Alex, is asked “Why do you like to be scared?” Her response leaves us in no doubt that this is one girl who loves a good fright: “Your heart races, your hair stands on end, your palms get sweaty. Like a roller-coaster. Or a bungee jump. The chord is there to protect you while you taste the fear. And when you bounce back to safety you get this tingly rush of relief.”
The problem for Alex though is that she can’t get a good enough taste. Stuck in her grandmother’s house on her favourite night of the year (Halloween, of course), she tries to make the best of it by chatting with her friends on the phone and watching old horror films. None of this quite does it for her though, and so she begins to re-enact the “Bloody Mary” ritual while chatting to her friend on the phone. This involves walking up the stairs backwards, with the lights off, while holding a candle and a hand-mirror. It’s quite a simple scene, but it’s done very effectively. Indeed, this film is all about doing a lot with very little, as there is just one location and often only one actor on screen (Philippa Carson, who plays Alex). That the film is so gripping is testament to Carson’s performance. But credit must also go to Rob Kennedy and his crew, who give a fine demonstration of how to make the most of things when faced with such constraints.
As the title of the film suggests, the “Midnight Man” is the main focus of the story. He’s another urban legend like Bloody Mary, but of a more modern variety (there’s lots on the Internet to read about him). Alex finds out about him while exploring her grandmother’s house; she discovers an old box which contains a “game” that her grandmother used to play. Still not satisfied after trying to get a scare from the Bloody Mary ritual, Alex decides to play the game. This involves spending the hours after midnight alone in the dark, after you have invited the Midnight Man into your house. The object of the game is to avoid him, but all you have for protection is a circle of salt. A silly game you might say, but what if the Midnight Man is real? And what if he is something even more malevolent than you expected? And so the roller-coaster ride begins, making us question if Alex really has got more than she bargained for. It’s a morality-tale of sorts (though a very good one); and it made me think of the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” That is, perhaps some things are best left alone, such as grave-yards, ouija-boards, or playing with the Midnight Man.
However, this film should certainly not be left alone; and it very much deserves to be seen by a wider audience. The screen that I saw it in at last year’s festival was so packed that some people had to sit on the floor, but that was the only screening that the film has received to date. This puzzled me for some time until I discovered that the production company behind the film (First Quarter Films) are in talks with producers from overseas who want to buy the film and re-make it. This would be a good outcome for all involved no doubt, but part of me would be disappointed if the original never got a general release in Irish cinemas, with an accompanying DVD made available. Rob Kennedy and his cast and crew brought a low-budget production to the festival last year, but that is part of the film’s charm. The constraints that they faced do not take away from the cinematic experience. If anything, the low-budget nature of the film gives it a realistic, believable quality. Most of all, the performances of Carson and her onscreen grandmother (Dorothy Clements) should not be left to gather dust. That would be a true horror.
By Martin Ryan