For the most part, video stores are dead, save for a handful around the world (read Kate Hagen’s excellent and extensive piece for an idea). Luckily, I work at Best Video, one of the last remaining vestiges to the golden days of renting, where streaming meant perusing shelves in hope of finding the last copy of whatever your parents wouldn’t let you catch in theaters. Each and every day I stock the same old shelves so those out there looking to romanticize renting can do so, often finding myself absently surfing the horror section; a 1,000 film wall that hides some of the genres greatest (and worst) contributions.
So I decided to take on the task, a journey if you will, of combing through every single title within the horror genre at work, A to Z. This is that journey, and as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand films begins with a single scream…
Oh, and follow #AtoZhorror on Instagram and Twitter @reelbrew for every terrifying pit-stop! Enjoy!
A: After Midnight (1989), directed by Jim & Ken Wheat
Terror has no curfew.
Just about every decade has had their heft of horror anthologies. Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath [’63]and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan [’65] wove tales of terror for the 1960’s. Asylum [’72] and The House that Dripped Blood [’71] – under Amicus Productions – brought the hammer down on British horror in the 1970’s, while the subsequent decade saw the EC Comics of the 1950’s resurrected through George Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow [’82]. Each immortalized themselves in the pantheon of anthologies that have recently seen a revitalization with the likes of 2017’s XX (a faulty yet significant all woman directed anthology) and this year’s Ghost Stories.
Yet for every groundbreaking or beloved anthology lies a neglected compendium of terror, one whose startling scream couldn’t quite overcome the fan-shriek arisen from the decades standout. For the 1980’s, that forsaken frightmare is After Midnight, a deliciously spooky trio of terror from the brothers that brought you, yup, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor [’85].
Opening with a startling education on fear – a classroom scene that would quickly make the rounds on social media if it were today – Ken and Jim Wheat’s anthology brings students of Professor Derek’s (Ramy Zada) ‘Psychology of Fear’ course to his home, where he allows each undergrad to tell their scariest story. The first story, titled ‘The Old Dark House’ (classically referencing James Whale’s 1932 adaptation of Benighted), finds a couple seeking assistance in an infamously spooky house. The second tale, ‘A Night on the Town’, sees four young women low on gas and in an unknown part of the city, fight for their lives after a sadistic gas station attendant and his vicious dogs refuse to show them the way home. Lastly, ‘All Night Operator’ introduces us to a woman (Marg Helgenberger) at a telephone messaging service who tries to help a client that is preyed upon by a stalker, only to become the focus of his ill-intent.
Each story acts as a portmanteau, a device connecting its pieces to a main plot that involves Allison (Jillian McWhirter), a student troubled by a dream, her more optimistic friend Cybil (King of the Hill’s own Pamela Adlon), and a humiliated jock (Ed Monaghan) out for revenge. Tales from the Crypt [’72] cleverly highlighted this when its dreaded characters realized their fate through multiple stories, each involving the other.
Here, Allison learns that her present day lesson on fear is nothing but her dreams on repeat. It’s a snare drum finale that doesn’t just tidy up any loose ends, it tucks them deep into your skin. Often – and I say this as someone deterred by short stories – micro-tales can feel unfulfilling, coming and going before its horror can be delivered. With its deus ex machina ending and use of a portmanteau, After Midnight never forgets to turn the lights off before closing your bedroom door.
That isn’t to say that each story told by the students in Professor Drake’s curriculum is effective. ‘All Night Operator’ plays up the vibes dialed in When a Stranger Calls [’79] though never capitalizes on its dread that comes with the unassuming voice of a killer caller. In ‘A Night on the Town’, the possibility of a Maniac [’80] meets Cujo mirroring is ditched for a canine chase that culminates in a perplexing warehouse explosion.
Tension is built, though too often it’s left unbridled (save for the chilling and comically bleak ending of ‘The Old Dark House’), losing itself in the resolve of its story, one that still manages to entertain despite its failings. What culminates is a cob-webbed and at times spooky collection of stories that would make William Castle rattle his bones in delight. There’s even a visit from a stop-motion skeleton that evokes the momentary horror of Clash of the Titan’s [’81] and A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors [’87], evoking a fantastical playfulness that is often forgotten in the genre.
Add After Midnight to your collection!