“It’s Halloween at WKIZ when the malicious Mistress of Midnight (Erin Brown) arrives to host her annual horror movie marathon ‘Dead by Midnight’. When the WKIZ staff begins disappearing only to turn up in the increasingly darker films, it’s up to line producer Candice Spelling (Hannah Fierman) to stop the Mistress of Midnight before her final and most diabolical film goes to air.”
There’s really no better film to screen at midnight than a horror anthology, is there? It keeps the usually raucous audience on their toes, and by presenting a series of stories with a wraparound means that everyone has a chance to see something which they might enjoy, while still maintaining some sort of sequential storyline.
Such is the case with Dead By Midnight (11pm Central), a new anthology from You42, which is itself about a midnight horror movie marathon on Halloween; it screened Saturday, November 17, at midnight as part of the Buried Alive Film festival. Pretty meta, right? The plot outline above spells out the general framing device, which sees Brown’s Mistress of Midnight introducing films which strangely seem to feature the staff of the WKIZ station.
From the start, Brown’s character is a scenery-chewing, pun-spewing horror hostess in the vein of Elvira, albeit with a sinister subtext. This clues you in right from the start that Dead By Midnight is going to be a little more on the horror comedy end of things, making the anthology more of a Tales of Halloween than Southbound.
That comedy edge is definitively brought to the forefront in the first short, “Jersey Devil,” which is a tale of the infamous cryptozoological critter, and a waitress’ attempt to find the friend who was abducted by it. There’s a snarky kid, cluelessly dimwitted dad, and some nicely gory action, although it comes across as seeming a little bit rushed. The audio sounds like it was recorded inside an empty oil drum at times, and the acting’s a little rough — especially from the kid and dad — although lead actress Davi Crimmins, who co-wrote the script, is steely-tough in her portrayal of Dani.
Of all the sequences, the second, “Creepy Dolls,” is the most fun. It’s definitely low-budget, but plays with with the limitations to create a short that’s really funny, frequently absurd, and over-the-top. Andrew Puckett’s Ben is every character to escape terror and find his story unbelieved, but rollickingly hilarious in his frustrated terror, and is the segment’s highlight all the way through its runtime.
“Lost Laundry” is fun enough at the start, but it runs out of steam and has an unsatisfactory conclusion, even if it manages to work in some weird imagery throughout. There’s some found-footage aspects to it that don’t quite work, either, and it seems like it’s trying to balance between scary and funny, without ever really embracing either aspect fully. Had it really gone for broke on the odd sense of humor which runs throughout, it would’ve been more successful.
“Day Three” is smack-dab in the middle of Dead By Midnight, and while solidly creepy in its depiction of a woman abducted and impregnated with … something, it’s such a difference in tone from all the material which surrounds it that it feels like a gut punch. Granted, that means that this piece — written, directed, and starring Anissa Matlock — is astonishingly successful, but it feels as if it belongs somewhere else, rather than in the middle of some mostly-goofy segments about killer dolls, cryptids, and mysterious horror hostesses. It’s about a woman who’s denied the ability to terminate her pregnancy, then forced by the law to carry it to term with an ankle monitor and court-appointed guardian to make sure she doesn’t do anything rash. Given that plot summary, one wonders how it came to be part of this gag-fest, when it’s more the sort of thing which would be paired with V/H/S’ “Amateur Night” (whose Hannah Fierman stars in “Dead Air,” the wraparound tale).
The final installment, “Blindsided,” is the most effective in realizing its story within its short running time. It doesn’t try to switch tone from scene to scene, instead using its storyline and plot points to create a tale which begins sweetly, but slowly and surely begins to unravel. It’s mysterious, well-acted, and tightly-paced in a way which allows it engage in some funny moments, but the rather more tense sense of story makes the laughter uncomfortable.
The aforementioned wraparound, “Dead Air,” does a respectable job of setting everything up and tying all of the disparate segments together, and gives Fierman a chance to shine, whereas in the interstitial segments, she’s mostly relegated to being irritated. In “Dead Air,” she gets to run around, deal with incredibly strange happenings, and eventually become a horror hostess herself. Her performance at the film’s very end is so delightfully uncomfortable, it comes close to outshining everything which came before.
Given that the film was completed before the return of Joe Bob Briggs on Shudder, the streaming aspect of the finale really seems prescient, and now I kind of want to watch that movie next.