Midnight Son (2011) reimagines the vampire movie just enough to keep you guessing.
Midnight Son (2011) sounds like something from the bottom third of the Stephen King oeuvre with a car chase at the end and a Danzig soundtrack, or what John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) actually is. In reality, this chilling indie character portrait from first-time writer/director Scott Leberecht is closer to The Pilgrim’s Progress, if the pilgrim is progressing toward your jugular vein.
Jacob (Zak Kilberg), age 24, is in the outer orbit of emerging adulthood and the final stages of his physical development. But it’s not clear yet what’s crawling out of his cocoon, or if anyone would notice anyway, given the level of solitude in his life. He works nights at a mind-numbing security job, where he’s lucky if he’s pulling down minimum wage. By day he sequesters himself in his apartment, every square inch of it stuffed with books, and paints sunsets that he’ll never see, since the slightest exposure to natural light leaves him looking like a napalm victim.
He’s also slowly starving to death, despite that he’s scarfing down frozen pizzas three or maybe four at a time. Nothing seems to fill him up. His doctor thinks that it might be anemia, but his problem is more existential in nature, like the hunger artist’s from that Kafka story. He’s just not finding the food that suits him. Not at first anyway.
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It turns out that raw blood suits him just fine after instinct prevails over taboo avoidance and he slurps down the juices from some leftover meat packaging. Luckily he lives near an all-night butcher. He takes to buying his lunch by the pint and sipping it from a coffee cup while he browses the picked-over horror selection at—get this—his neighborhood video store. He goes home with Fright Night (1985), the old gods bless him.
But when he finally tastes the primo stuff, the human blood, which he does by accident, he undergoes a transformation. Kilberg plays it like a tantric orgasm, the deriving of peak satisfaction from one’s sustenance that the non-Jacobs among us will never experience, its intensity a function of its transgressiveness. It causes the room, or maybe just the camera, to shake. And as Jacob realizes that his butcher’s-blood lattes aren’t going to be cutting it for him anymore, that what he’d much rather have has just left the building in the circulatory system of a living person, the soundtrack swells with synthesizer chords, like a New Age version of the Sturm und Drang that announces the arrival of higher consciousness in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Human blood is now on the menu. The only question is how to get it.
As what he calls his “blood thing” escalates, he’s also trying, and mostly failing, to connect with Mary (Maya Parish), a girl he meets in an early scene. But since his social skills peaked at about age 7, he comes across as needier than the average creature of the night, completely out of step with the Bela Lugosi playbook. Not that this is necessarily a dealbreaker. Mary likes men who present with issues. And he can be kind to her, sort of, when he’s not asking her to leave, which appears to be more than she’s accustomed to getting, so it makes a certain sense that she keeps giving him chances. Although the chemistry between the actors helps to sell their relationship better than anything in the script.
Mary is also a progressing pilgrim. In her case, she’s pretty far along in a cocaine habit and in a certain degree of denial about it. “The other night, that wasn’t me,” she says, with every evidence to the contrary. But this facet of her character has no bearing on the plot. The story here is Jacob’s alone, and he’s so wrapped up in what’s happening to him that he can only see Mary in relation to that. He’s worried (with cause) about what she might think if she learns too much about his quirks, let’s call them. But he never once sees her in relation to herself, not until their journeys into darkness link up. This reduces her to something like an actual blood bag, which is a shame, and a missed opportunity, because there’s got to be a movie’s worth of story from her side of it. My fantasy sequel takes the exact same events but presents them from her point of view, not his.
Then there’s Marcus (Jo D. Jonz), a graveyard-shift hustler who runs his racket out of a hospital. Marcus specializes in procurement. He’s the sort of person you meet when you first begin to circle a drain. (In Hollywood lingo, that’s the second act.) He’s also, in a sense, this movie’s Renfield, in that he opens the door for something terrible, although we need to invent a new classification of lunatic for Marcus’s different kind of Renfield, an understated, layered Renfield, which a less skillful actor would have botched. Jonz rounds out his character admirably and carries his scenes with charisma and menace. He doesn’t always get the best lines to read, either. The script has a time of it finding Marcus’s voice, especially after a third-act surprise, so it’s a testament to his acting that his character works.
The cast on the whole is creditable, and Parish and Kilberg turn in solid performances, but with awkward staging every now and then that more confident filmmaking might have helped to smooth over. And the grain all over the picture gets old—too many night shoots under too little light. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief calls it a design choice, but it feels like the indie-sized budget chose it for him, like the choice to eat salad at a salad bar. Or the choice to drink blood when you suffer from “anemia.”
The lack of funding and the rookie mistakes aren’t enough to sink this one, though, because the film as delivered is worth a dozen of Twilight (2008) for the masterful way that it reveals itself. I haven’t said what Jacob is—or isn’t—for a reason. For much of the movie, we don’t know, and we won’t until it finishes its eidetic reduction of what it means to be, as Anne Rice might say, “nothing, if not a vampire.”
So if you despair that you’ll never see anything new with fangs and a pallor in horror cinema, that you’ve wandered down every promising avenue and identified and analyzed every current of subtext and discovered every conceivable variation on the theme, and if, ever since Count Orlok rose out of his coffin, you’ve dreaded the coming of that inevitable day when these movies would finally get the stake to the heart and crumble to dust before your eyes, and if you’ve already seen Let the Right One In (2008), seek out Midnight Son and be reborn undead.
Make sure not to miss the final scene.