Julius Ramsay’s directorial debut thriller, Midnighters, seems to be tiptoeing toward greatness as it establishes its classically suspenseful premise: A quarreling couple hit a pedestrian with their car and take the dead man back to their house, only to realize that he may actually have been on his way to kill them. It’s the kind of first act that sets up big, rousing questions. Unfortunately, the answers are far less interesting than your speculations.
Married couple Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee) can’t even hide their animosity for one another on New Year’s Eve. Lindsey “celebrates” at the bar where she works, while Dylan impatiently waits for her outside. The Jeff-is-a-dick alarms are already shrieking when the two drive home and Jeff attempts to Band-Aid their fight with an inappropriate sexual come-on. In perfect horror-movie fashion, he’s punished for his misdeeds when, distracted, he hits a pedestrian on the winding, woodsy road leading to the couple’s remote home. Now they’ve got this mess to deal with, something like an I Know What You Did Last Summer but without supernatural stakes. Rather, there is real-world danger, because a crime syndicate is after Lindsey’s wild-child sister, Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine), and the three of them are sitting ducks for murderers but can’t go to the police because they’ve got a body rotting in the garage. Ah! Exciting! This should make for a tense home-invasion thriller!
Alston Ramsay’s script sets the action in a house under construction — a choice explained away as evidence of Jeff’s inability to finish a project or make the money to pay others to do it. What’s disappointing is that the setting isn’t woven into the suspense; think of all the plastic construction and painting sheets hanging from unfinished walls and flapping in the wind, and how eerie the sound and visuals would be. Instead, we get only a glimpse of them and spend most of our time in the finished part of the house. So why even include it?
Midnighters finds some redemption in its lagging middle with the entrance of a villain whose ear-to-ear smile is almost Gary Busey-toothy. Played by Ward Horton, clean-cut thug Smith possesses the charm of an American psycho, the kind of guy who could pass for either a preacher or a serial killer. But while Smith is a welcome breath of rancid air and a worthy adversary for the strong-willed Lindsey — he keeps making mention of their zodiac signs and how compatible they are — the script doesn’t even give them a chance to really, physically battle it out.
In one scene, Smith intimidates Lindsey by trailing her closely around the kitchen and demanding, too politely, that she make him a cup of coffee. That cat-and-mouse play is compelling and creepy but ends too quickly, with Lindsey just getting tied to a chair and beaten. Watching a guy repeatedly punch a woman while she’s incapacitated is far less interesting than watching the two match wits on equal footing. At times, it seems as if the Ramsays have forgotten the potential of the simple story they set up in the first act, opting instead to complicate the narrative unnecessarily. Still, Midnighters does have potential and is worth a watch if only for a peek at Horton’s unnerving performance.