/After Midnight/

The box store near our place is being bought out, so everything is on sale. This means it is possible to do things like buy horror DVDs for somewhat less than $2. Or, perhaps, an eight-movie collection for less than $5.

These are going to be terrible.

I have started with After Midnight, the standalone DVD. The frame story is about a certain Professor Derek teaching a course in the psychology of fear, and I am bravely resisting comparisons to Clive Barker’s “Dread”. We start with Allison (our protagonist) and her friend (you know, the protagonist’s friend… it’s an 80s movie, you can fill her in) going to class, with Allison explaining that she didn’t sleep well, and she has a bad feeling about the class they’re going to take…

Plot summary, spoilers, and brief rating follows the cut.

The bad feeling seems warranted, since the professor puts a gun to Russ-the-jock’s head in the first class, causing Russ to lose bladder control and subsequently complain to the dean. Our professor curtails his teaching in the classroom, and offers to arrange a study group at his home where some of his students can delve into the subject in more depth. This is also how a first-year course gets down to a manageable size; we’ll be focussing on one study group’s get-together.

So! Our students–including Allison, who is clearly deeply apprehensive and vaguely precognitive, which leaves me wondering why on earth she is still showing up–head over to the professor’s house. They settle in and begin trying to evoke fear, telling each other scary stories, and our frame story presents its first vignette.

A married couple go out for a late-night drive on the husband’s birthday. The car tires are ruined because someone spilled tacks all over the road, so they head to a nearby house, which just happens to be the one where five headless bodies were once found. The wife (who seems very much to be driving events) insists on going in through a window so she can open the door for her husband, and I am sitting here thinking that, well, this is Tales from the Crypt terrible. Of course she’s not there when the door’s unlocked, and the apprehensive husband goes in looking for her. He sees a horrible figure, hears his wife screaming, picks up a sword from one of the suits of armor in the hallway–it’s that kind of old house–and nerves himself up to advance…

In a genuine surprise, we now see that the entire event was planned as a surprise birthday party. Their friends are there, and his wife gets ready to surprise him with the cake and candles.

Protip: you should not surprise someone who’s very nerve-wracked and has a sword when it’s too dark for them to see that you aren’t the person who’s attacked their wife. Both of them have a split-second to realize what’s happening before his swing takes her head off.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by this! I mean, I was not expecting that twist.

Back at the frame story, the power’s gone out, although possibly just in this house. The study group goes to find candles (Allison knowing where they are better than Professor Derek does), and settle in to tell another story. Meanwhile, Russ is lurking outside the window with an axe.

Second story! A bunch of underage teenage girls are try and fail to sneak into a club, and the movie starts feeling incredibly dated again. (The suggestion that maybe they could go home, and stop on the way to rent a tape or something, made me grin. Tapes, I remember those!) They get lost driving around the warehouse district and stop at a gas station, except it’s an abandoned gas station, and two of the four decide to go in and look for a phone…

(This was actually the rationale for the husband and wife to go to the haunted house in the last vignette, just saying.)

Anyway. It’s a bad part of town, so of course the person staying in the gas station is a horrible greasy creep who decides to try to rape our protagonists. They get away, he jumps on the roof of their car, there’s a car crash, and while he dies, his dogs are coming after them. One of the girls is killed, and the other three lure the dogs into a warehouse filled with flammable stuff (in black barrels marked FLAMMABLE in big red letters) and then blow it up. Overall? Not impressed.

(As with many dogs in movies, the tails are wagging far too hard for them to come across as a threat. They are a trio of absolutely lovely dogs who seem positively thrilled to get to do a job and wrestle with the humans and make barking noises and probably get treats and praise after the shot is over. (Note that them being convincingly scary would not have improved my opinion of this vignette.))

Back at the frame! The disgruntled student has broken in through the storm-cellar doors, and is creeping through the basement with his axe. Allison is informing telling people that they need to leave right now and the professor is explaining that they’re not done. On to the last vignette!

A telephone operator is coming back from her ski trip (during which she broke a leg) to work the night shift at an answering service, which is going under due to the wave of newfangled beepers and car phones and cheap answering machines. A stalker starts calling, trying to reach one of the actresses who uses the service, and gets snappish with the operator. When the actress calls in for her messages, she asks that the stalker not be told they spoke about him. The operator agrees, and when the stalker calls back, tells him she hasn’t spoken to the actress. He says he knows the actress came home, and the operator calls the actress to warn her…

And the stalker picks up, explaining it’s too late for warnings, and he’s going to make sure the operator never lies to him again.

Decent setup. Unfortunately, the vignette promptly blows it all with a failure to call the cops and further silliness that is not worth detailing. Unable to escape the office building, she smashes all the hallway lights (shades of Wait Until Dark) on her floor, and hides in the office. When a silhouette approaches the frosted-glass door, she stabs through it with her broken crutch and kills the security guard.

The phone begins ringing again. She picks it up, and the camera pulls back to show the stalker calling her from another office phone.

I wanted to like this one, but the middle part was just too silly; the timing rang false, not calling the cops right away was a pure Idiot Ball move, and I ended up more interested in doing the math on who was where when than following the story. Damn shame, because up until she doesn’t call the cops, and after she makes it back to her floor to hide, it’s actually well-done. Not hugely original, but solid.

Back at the frame story, people are a bit freaked out, and someone observes how cold it is. The professor goes to check on the furnace. Alison pleads with him not to leave because she’s starting to remember her story, and is horribly upset when he says that she can tell it when he gets back.

It’s close enough to saying “I’ll be right back,” I suppose.

The study group comes down in time to find that Russ has suspended Professor Derek upside-down from one of the pipes running along the ceiling and is pouring a circle of lighter fluid around him. Russ lights the fluid, and starts swinging the professor over the flames. The pipe breaks, and the professor picks himself up and calmly challenges Russ to hit him with the axe. (Professor Derek’s very unsettling calm, by the way, is why the next moment doesn’t come as an utter shock; it’s a pretty good indication that something is very strange if not necessarily wrong.) Russ swings at him, but doesn’t hit him.

Then Professor Derek calmly picks up the axe and starts using it on Russ.

The pipe that broke is spewing gas, and the fire is spreading; there’s a rather well-done shot of the professor wrapped in flames chopping away at the prone body. Most of the study group students are trapped; Allison heads for the stairs. A strange force drags her friend back into the flames and Allison makes it out of the basement alone, to find herself running through the locations from the vignettes. Professor Derek corners her in the answering service office, puts a gun to her head, and pulls the trigger.

Allison jolts awake, as from a nightmare. She gets up and gets ready for the day, and we end up back at the beginning, as she’s explaining to her friend that she didn’t sleep well, and she has a bad feeling about the class they’re going to take.

I honestly expected this to be… uhm, pretty crap. The second vignette and half (but only half, and I can appreciate a generic story that was well-filmed) of the third were pretty crap, but the first one was neat, dammit; I wasn’t expecting it, it made the preceding silliness make sense, and it actually managed to be upsetting. The frame story had creepy moments, although I wanted to shake Allison for continuing to go through the motions, I can forgive it in light of the loop of events; I am thinking of the line in Tommyknockers which suggested that precognitives are likely to allow themselves to be caught up in the flow of events.

So overall: Three out of five, I guess. Would have made it to a four out of five if the second vignette had been replaced with something less embarrassing and the third hadn’t lost so much coherency towards the end, but those would be pretty big changes.

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