Saturday, 27 February 2010

Heart of Midnight (1988)

Heart of Midnight is an overlooked late 80s horror flick that is worth tracking down. It’s not your typical 80s horror movie at all.

This was the age of the slasher movie, and the gore movie. Film-makers no longer bothered with mood or atmosphere. If you have enough violence and enough gore, who needs atmosphere? But Heart of Midnight takes precisely the opposite approach. It relies almost entirely on atmosphere, and that’s its greatest strength. It also uses the approach brought to a peak of perfection by Robert Wise in his 1963 version of The Haunting, an approach that relies on the insight that what you don’t see is a good deal more frightening than what you do see.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is Carol, a young woman who’s had her share of problems. She’s had several breakdowns, and she has some major sexual issues. When her last boyfriend got too familiar with her she scratched his face so badly he ended up in hospital, and she had a complete breakdown and temporarily lost her hearing. Now she seems to be slowly getting herself back together. Her problem now is that she’s bored and aimless and fed up with her well-meaning but overwhelming mother (played in over-the-top style by Brenda Vaccaro).

So when she discovers she’s inherited a night-club from her uncle Fletcher, it looks like the opportunity she’s been waiting for. Instead of selling the club as her mother advises, she decides she’ll re-open it. And she’ll live there as well.

But it turns out that The Midnight was no ordinary night-club. It was a sex club combined with a brothel. And not just a sex club, but a club for kinky sex. For a young woman with sexual problem this might not seem like the ideal environment, but Carol finds the ambience oddly attractive. She is disturbed by many of the things she finds there, but drawn to them as well. The Midnight seems to attract certain influences, and it’s located in a very sleazy neighbourhood. Soon after moving in Carol is raped, but strangely this seems to increase her determination to stay.

The cop signed to investigate the rape soon proves to be a disturbing influence as well. He’s clearly taking an inappropriate personal interest in her, and she’s just as obviously becoming personally interested in him.

The Midnight is a club that seems almost to have a life of its own. Odd things happen, doors open and close for no reason, there are inexplicable noises. There is obviously a secret here, a secret that Carol will have to unravel.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is rather good as Carol. It’s a subtle performance that works well. The acting as a whole is good, with a couple of exceptions.

Most of the movie takes place in the club, and it’s a great setting. It’s tacky and sleazy but fascinating and it oozes with weirdness and unhealthiness, but it’s a nicely subtle weirdness and unhealthiness. There’s some very effective use of colour as well.

It was written and directed by Matthew Chapman. As a director he impresses me a lot. The build-up is handled superbly, with the tension slowly ratcheted up. For the first nine-tenths of the film he resists the temptation to be too obvious, or to go for cheap shocks. He lets the extraordinary atmosphere of the club itself do much of the work, and he doesn’t try to get too clever with camera angles. He gets some very creepy sequences by just keeping it simple, with effective compositions that don’t require clever tricks.

As a writer I’m less impressed by him. It may be simply because a couple of the major plot elements are ones that I personally consider to be excessively obvious and very over-used. And when he needs finally to resolve the mystery I felt that things stated to fall apart rather badly.

Despite these reservations the movie has more than enough pluses to compensate for the minuses, and it’s definitely worth a look.

Unfortunately it appears to have only been released on DVD in Region 2, and that release is now out of print (although copies can still be found - I managed to get hold of one).

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