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Midnight (1982)
Director: John Russo

review by Max Cairnduff

Midnight is a strange one. It's a 1982 ultra-low budget horror film featuring a family of redneck Satanists who like to kill strangers and sacrifice young women to their dark lord and the corpse of their deceased mother.

It's directed by John Russo, who most famously co-wrote Night Of The Living Dead, features special effects by Tom Savini, and the cast includes John Amplas who played the lead in George A. Romero's Martin. It has an excellent pedigree, but the result is both terrible and yet actually quite disturbing. I give it three stars, but a good argument could be made for anything between one and four.

Melanie Verlin plays Nancy Johnson, a 17-year-old who runs away from home after her drunken cop stepfather (played by Lawrence Tierney) tries to rape her. She's propositioned by the first guy who offers her a lift, but soon finds herself hitching a ride in a van driven by two college-age drifters making their way to Florida, one black and the other white.

Russo spends a fair while (more time than the characters really merit) establishing Nancy and the two boys who pick her up, who of course turn out to be stoners and petty criminals. As a cheesy soft-rock ballad ("you're all alone, and midnight's at your door, at your doo-oor") plays on the soundtrack they chat, bicker, laugh and generally have a bit of a road trip.

Soon, they're in the middle of rural America, which if you're a movie teenager is never a good idea. They stop in a nowhere town which they're promptly run out of because the racist locals don't like the look of them. At a service station they pick up a preacher and his daughter, and the preacher warns them in an excessively long piece of rather wooden exposition that a lot of people have been found murdered hereabouts of late. They drop the preacher and his daughter off and tell him they plan to camp out, ignoring his warning that if they do there's every chance they'll be brutally killed. Personally, I'd keep driving.

We're now a good way into the film and, apart from an opening scene showing the redneck Satanists as children, not a lot has really happened. That said; the film's already had a few slightly creepy scenes. The rape attempt at the beginning, as Nancy's step-dad pleads with her just to let him look at her naked, is genuinely unpleasant, and everywhere Nancy goes she just seems to fall into worse trouble. Still, pacing is not this film's greatest strength.

From here it soon gets much more disturbing. I won't spoil the characters' fates, though I will say that if I were a preacher warning folk not to hang about in isolated spots I probably wouldn't then go to a deserted graveyard to pray for my dead wife. It's just unwise.

By this point it probably sounds terrible. In part it is. The music score is just odd, playing a kind of porn-movie reject electronica over many scenes where it just doesn't go, and massively overusing that Midnight ballad clearly written for the film ("you're all alone, and midnight's at your door, at your doo-oor," it's still playing in my head a day later, perhaps the ultimate horror). The film quality is murky, and the sound is far from crisp. Much of the acting is weak, and the dialogue is often extremely literal (Nancy picks up a phone and realises the other end has hung up, and promptly says out loud to an empty room that they've hung up).

What makes it not terrible then? As the murders start they're shot against incredibly prosaic settings: a campsite; a backyard as a husband and wife play with a Frisbee; a bathroom. The family, when they appear, are actually pretty creepy. Most of all, though, there's a nihilistic pointlessness to it all which makes it particularly unpleasant.

The family includes a standard-issue overweight psycho, Cyrus, who giggles all the time and doesn't add much to proceedings. The scenes where he kills are almost embarrassingly unconvincing and the whole character concept is just an utter cliché. Much better is Amplas as Abraham, chillingly casual as he murders people in an absolutely matter-of-fact, business-as-usual, way. He's helped and guided by his brother Luke, played by Greg Besnak who's sporting a tremendous moustache that's almost worth the price of the DVD alone. Luke is the muscle of the team, and just plain looks like he's having fun what with the hunting folk and shooting them and all.

Creepiest of all though is the eerily-beautiful Robin Walsh as Cynthia. With mommy dearest unable to conduct the ceremonies any more (being a rotting corpse has its downsides), Cynthia has taken over as high priestess. She officiates as the victims are sacrificed, boasts of her special powers (which there's no evidence of) and appears positively blissful as she basks in the sheer pleasure of evil.

As the film builds up Nancy finds herself at one point locked in a dog cage next to another intended victim. The family like to celebrate Easter with a three-day three-sacrifice special. Nancy's last on the menu and her only hope is drunken rapist-wannabe step-dad who, under pressure from Nancy's mother, decides to find out what's happened to her.

So, Midnight - a film so grim that the nearest thing it has to a hero is an alcohol-soaked child-abuser. This is a dark film. Actually, it's often literally a dark film (it's occasionally quite hard to see what's happening), but the true darkness is in the world it portrays. Nancy comes from a home where her stepfather assaults her. On the road she meets men who proposition her, petty crooks, racist townsfolk and a family of psycho Satanists carrying out sacrifices in return for a delusion of eternal life. There's some suggestion that Nancy's Catholic faith might help save her, but it's equally likely that her faith is just as meaningless as the faith of the family whose clutches she falls into. In the end, things just happen and a lot of people die.

In one sense Midnight is a near plot-less film that spends nearly half its length developing characters one doesn't much care about, kills a bunch of people, and then just sort of stops. In another sense its vision of chaos in a world in which faith is devoid of substance and in which evil regardless of its trappings is deeply banal. It's technically deeply flawed (don't watch it on your computer, you can still see the time counter on the top of the screen, the problem doesn't occur when watching on a TV) at times pretty ham-fisted, but it disturbs and given that's what it sets out to do in the end it's a success.

Midnight is released by Arrow Video. It comes with a brief introduction by John Amplas, and the theatrical trailer. There's also a 30-minute featurette in which Amplas talks about his career. Apparently he hasn't seen Midnight since it was shot, and was in his words 'loaded' during the shoot and remembers almost none of it. He comes across as extremely likeable and it's a nice little extra. Finally, there's also a 20-minute interview with John Russo where, among other things, he talks of the difficulties he faced in making Midnight, particularly with much of the best footage being lost and so second and third order takes having to be used in their place. It's a nice set of extras, particularly given the relatively poor quality of the print itself, and I understand that the full DVD release also includes a booklet by Stephen Thrower discussing the film further.


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