Saturday 15 February 2014

Midnight Son (2011)

Director: Scott Leberecht
Stars: Zak Kilberg, Maya Parish, Jo D Jonz, Arlen Escarpeta, Larry Cedar, Juanita Jennings and Tracey Walter
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Scott Leberecht, who wrote, produced and directed Midnight Son, is far better known as a visual effects arts director at Industrial Light and Magic. Having films like Eraser, 101 Dalmations and Sleepy Hollow behind you can hardly be seen as a bad training ground for a start in making the films you really want to make. He wrote and directed a short film in 2003 called Underdog, around the time he also directed a couple of other shorts he didn't write, but this is his debut feature as a writer/director, one that perhaps took him eight years to get going. It's a solid film too that made a few ripples on the festival circuit back in 2011. Perhaps its biggest problem is that it doesn't feel like a 2011 movie, more like the sort of novel that more ambitious horror authors were trying to write back in the eighties when vampires were being reinvented. It's slow, careful and thoughtful. It has a strangely hopeful ending. It's a vampire movie that only mentions the V word once and only ever hints at the possibility of showing us fangs.

Our hero, if such a word is remotely appropriate here, is Jacob Gray, who works security for a faceless corporation. It's very apparent that something is wrong with him, not only because he collapses in the lobby but because he does so while listening to Gary the janitor's heartbeat from a few feet away, over the noise of the floor polisher, even over conversation. He's showing signs of malnourishment, although he eats a lot of junk food; the doctor thinks cirrhosis, jaundice and anaemia and recommends tests. He's very pale and he suffers from a serious skin condition, serious enough that he burns in sunlight, and I do mean burns, not just turns red. Only when he drinks the bloody juices from an undercooked steak does his stomach begin to feel happy. He may not have much of a clue what's happening to his body, but it's pretty obvious to us with ninety years of vampire movies behind us. He already works nights, third shift. 'It's like you're a vampire,' a girl tells him and it's something he's obviously thought about.

Why it manifests itself now is the real question and the only hint we get in that direction comes from the janitor, who is a believable fount of hidden knowledge because he's played by Tracey Walter, Miller from Repo Man. When Jacob tells him that he's 24, Gary replies that the human body stops growing at 25, so he must be in the last stages of something, not the early ones. Maybe he's 'like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly'. That's how this film is phrased: there are no undead armies, no Transylvanian counts, not a single dubious accent; it's about Jacob struggling to find himself when he's not like anyone else around him. After half an hour I realised I wasn't even thinking of this as a horror movie, more like a coming of age story, merely a little later in the protagonist's life than usual. It's a romance, a thriller, a drama. It's a drug movie, one whose drug happens to be blood rather than cocaine or heroin. It could even be seen as a nature film, a lost animal discovering his potential and transforming into what he could be.
It's only hokey briefly, as Jacob rents Fright Night (on VHS, no less, our only hint at a timeframe) to test the lore. None of it proves accurate. He can see himself in the mirror. He sticks a cross on his forehead but nothing happens. We never see fangs. We do see other things though, like how the film is sparsely populated as if to highlight how sparsely populated Jacob's life is. We wonder a lot about him, not only about what he is right now and what he's becoming but about what he used to be like. It doesn't seem to come up, apparent only in a few photos, knick-knacks and an abiding memory of the sun which he paints from photographs. He lives in a basement apartment with a heavy blanket over the door, which doesn't seem unusual to him. Gary the janitor and Mary, a girl he meets outside a club, are the only people he connects with and then not easily. He's likeable but he's just not a social creature. He seems to have drifted thoughtlessly into self medication as his condition worsened. He just got used to it.

Mary proves to be as much a catalyst for change as Jacob's condition. Zak Kilberg, an experienced but hardly prolific actor who seems to be transitioning into production, underplays Jacob throughout the film because he's a nonentity. He isn't anyone we would be watching a feature about if he wasn't becoming some sort of vampire butterfly. The differences between him and Mary are major from the moment we first see her, hawking candy and cigarettes. He's dressed simply in black and white; she's colourfully adorned with bangles, ribbons and glowing things. She's experienced; she works multiple jobs, she smokes and does drugs, she's had and ended relationships. He's done none of the above. Maya Parish, another experienced but not prolific actor, plays Mary as someone who has been there, done that often enough to be confident but still remain somehow empty. Meeting Jacob is an opportunity for her to change too. He's nice and he's different. He's a way out of a life she isn't particularly happy about.

It's through Maya that we find an analogy between vampirism and drug addiction. Realising how much animal blood agrees with him, he starts drinking it out of coffee cups, hiding his drug of choice; it only wanes when he inadvertently gets a taste of human blood for the first time. At Jacob's for a date, Maya snorts some coke in his bathroom and gets a nosebleed while making out. His reaction shakes her and prompts her to stop doing drugs, but it also prompts him to escalate, to the point where he scavenges from the biohazard trash at a hospital. An orderly called Marcus rumbles him, but gives him an expired blood pack with the promise of more, at $150 each. The drug analogy couldn't be more obvious at this point, but it's continued. Later when his shirt is splashed with blood he cuts a piece out to suck, like an acid dot. We even see production, the opportunistic Marcus draining a man in a wheelchair. Jacob tries to go legal after that, looking up blood sales online. It isn't quite that simple, as you can imagine.
Leberecht achieves much with Midnight Son but I'm not sure quite what he aimed it to be. I saw it at a horror film festival, perhaps appropriately given that it revolves around a man who can only be seen as a vampire, even if all the supernatural elements have been excised. It may well appeal to fans of more unusual vampire movies as Near Dark, Grace or Let the Right One In, but it's certainly not for the usual horror throngs. It probably plays best as a drama, with strong acting and a slow but sure progression as Jacob discovers who and what he really is. Yet the people who watch dramas don't tend to expect to be given a vampire as a lead character, however much it avoids the use of the word. Perhaps I'm seeing all this as a potential issue because it feels out of time. Nowadays, pictures like Let the Right One In have found an audience that appreciates artistic filmmaking, whatever the subject. Midnight Son plays like it was made in the late eighties but took 25 years to find a release. Back then, 'genre' was a dirty word.

From some angles Zak Kilberg has a Brendan Fraser thing going for him, albeit a rather anorexic Fraser, maybe crossed with Richard E Grant. From others there's some early Russell Crowe. Yet he's grounded, appearing like an everyday person rather than some A list movie star. He doesn't have the charisma for that but he does have the acting chops to draw us into his plight anyway, like a new face in a random TV show that you find yourself watching more than the leads. Yet an hour later, you'd walk past him on the street without even thinking. This may not have the star power of Zombie Strippers! but it's surely a number of notches up on the quality scale. Maya Parish also has plenty of talent and promise. She gets a substantial role here, not remotely close to the average character for a leading lady. Sure, she's the love interest, but she's also the driving force for the story in a number of different ways, often far more than the more passive Jacob. It falls more for Parish to push it forward than to Kilberg.

The supporting cast are capable too. Jo D Jonz and Aren Escarpeta fit the same category as Kilberg and Parish; they're both experienced but neither has made it big yet. Like them, this film can't hurt to be an entry on their resumes and they will surely make themselves noticed in the future. While Midnight Son belongs to the two leads, Jonz and Escarpeta bring depth to their characters as Marcus and his brother Russell. They also grow well, even without a substantial amount of screen time. The most recognisable name is Tracey Walter, but he gets very little to do; it's a reassurance that he does a lot with it. Juanita Jennings and Larry Cedar are both highly experienced, but their characters are restricted to subplots as Liz, the proprietor of an art gallery, who Mary persuades to exhibit Jacob's paintings, and Det Ginslegh, a cop investigating a string of murders which may or may not tie back to Jacob. All of them could easily have done more and done it well, but expanding their roles would have detracted from the core story.

And that all comes back to Jacob Gray, who remains an enigma past the end credits. We discover much about his condition as the film runs on, but not so much about him, not through any fault of Kilberg but because Leberecht obviously didn't want to tell. Everyone Jacob bites becomes like him and those who don't learn as he obviously did soon burn; this is consistent throughout, so helps us to find a grounding in what is to come, but it doesn't explain how Gray managed to make it this far. The difference is clearly that he was made vampire at a much younger age, maybe even at birth, but we're shown none of that. How did he survive as a vampire child? How did he make it to the point where he could self medicate by closing off the windows, putting up the blankets and taking a job working nights? Who are his parents and where are they? Why didn't they prepare him? Leberecht could easily make a prequel to explain to us where Jacob came from; maybe that was always the idea. I'm certainly not averse to it.

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