If you’ve ever wondered what a cross between Ouija (2014), The Bye Bye Man (2017), and a heavy dose of Insidious (2010) would look like, search no further. Travis Zariwny’s latest, The Midnight Man, is just that – a watchable, yet unremarkable, amalgam of any number of the latest supernatural films.
The film opens in a large, shadowy house set in 1953. Inside, a small group of children are gathered within a circle of salt, avoiding a creature they refer to as “the Midnight Man”. It’s soon revealed that this is all part of a game in which the children must follow a few simple rules to avoid the clutches of the Midnight Man, lest he use their deepest fears against them. Of course, the game goes terribly wrong, leading to the gruesome deaths of two children, while one lone girl’s life is spared.
Years later, the remaining child is now an elderly grandmother, Anna, played by Lin Shaye. Her granddaughter, Alex (Gabrielle Haugh), acts as a live-in caregiver for the fragile, agoraphobic, and not entirely sane woman. When Alex’s grandmother asks that she fetch an old hand mirror from the previously off-limits attic, Alex and her friend Miles (Grayson Gabriel) discover a worn-out box bound with rope, the contents of the box being the necessary parts to play the Midnight Man game. Naturally, the supposed teenagers decide to play the game and are taunted by the dreaded title monster.
The first glaring flaw is that the film does not give us enough time to digest each plot line or the characters at play. The story of Anna’s experience with the Midnight Man in her youth dives straight into the turmoil without giving us time to care about Anna or her friends beyond the fact that they are children in peril. Relatedly, we know next to nothing about Alex or her friends, so it’s difficult to make any emotional connections with these characters or care about their survival. There is an attempt to remedy this fact with a tragic backstory for Alex wherein her mother commits suicide, but the story is so muddled that we fail to care very much about that, either. The suicide plays into later events in the film, but by the time the connections are made between all of the storylines, we are exhausted and frustrated by the convoluted nature of the movie.
The next flaw is more of an omission – that of the Midnight Man himself, in fact. There is a surprising lack of Midnight Man antics. The entire story is based on the lure that this creature will use the players’ deepest fears against them, but this rule of the game is all but forgotten. The mysterious creature lurks and does scare those who venture to play his game, but he never actually uses any players’ fears to kill them.
When compared to another film which pits a monster who manifests into children’s deepest fears, Andres Muschietti’s widely popular IT (2017), it’s clear that The Midnight Man does not use its premise to its full potential. While IT took the time to tap into each character’s nightmare and scare the daylights out of them accordingly and in exceedingly clever ways, The Midnight Man does no such thing. Alex, Miles, and Kelly never even bother to mention their fears during the game like Anna and her friends did, so their scenes of terror are never personalized. Unfortunately, personalized terror is exactly what we want to see, otherwise, we’re simply watching another run-of-the-mill ghost movie. The entire point of the game at hand focuses on this threat of exploiting what frightens you (although terrifying in concept, it seems it would be easy to lie and say you’re afraid of teddy bears or vanilla ice cream). Thus, it seems nonsensical and careless to leave this intriguing and essential rule – arguably the movie’s selling point- out of much of the film.
As far as imagery goes, there are two really cool shots in this film: when the Midnight Man creates a sort of floating head effect with one of its victims and when Lin Shaye’s face is engulfed in black shadows, save for her maniacal smile. Unfortunately, these are the only two interesting shots that come to mind.The Midnight Man is excessively dark and hard to see but, when the picture is clear, it’s not distinctive from any of the other supernatural films that have come out since Insidious. Not only is the same color palette of deep blacks, dark blues, and shades of teal against paper-white and grey faces used, but some of the scenes seem to directly mimic Insidious. One such example is when the white-faced Shaye, clad in a white nightgown, appears from seemingly nowhere, points in the faces of Alex and Miles and loudly screams, “NO!” The two films look so alike in style and color that it’s often distracting because it’s hard to fight off the urge to point out all the similarities. However, despite its attempts, The Midnight Man never manages to reach nearly the same caliber of filmmaking as its muse.
The only true saving grace is Lin Shaye’s performance. Shaye does a great job of giving Anna depth where a less-skilled actress may not have done so. She succeeds in being an ominous, mysterious presence in a film where she could have easily been overshadowed by the title character. Unfortunately, the actors surrounding her seem to fall flat, except for the underused Robert Englund, who possesses Shaye’s same prevailing enthusiasm despite the questionable source material. If you choose to watch this film and find yourself briefly thinking Shaye is overacting here, you’ll likely realize it only seems that way because the other two main actors, Haugh more-so than Gabriel, seem to have checked out.
Suffice it to say that The Midnight Man is a messy – but not completely awful – film. There is enough to keep viewers’ attention, but there are also huge plot holes, leaps of logic that just can’t be made, and a frustrating storyline which makes little use of its monster or premise. The Midnight Man isn’t even so-bad-it’s-funny, like The Bye Bye Man, whose title monster bears a resemblance to ours, or Ouija, which follows the same ghost-movie-by-numbers formula. Sadly, this derivative film is just plain mediocre and will likely fade, perhaps deservedly so, into obscurity.
The Midnight Man will be available in the US on VOD platforms Jan. 19, 2018.