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Midnight Son

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Monster Pictures
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Scott Leberecht
Zak Kilberg
Maya Parish
Jo D. Jonz
Arlen Escarpeta
Larry Cedar
Bottom Line: 
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This micro-budgeted LA vampire thriller noir has gathered a small cult following on the festival circuit in the past few years, most of its promoters being rather amusingly over anxious to disassociate it from the taint of the “Twilight” franchise despite the unavoidable fact that one of the primary concerns of "Midnight Son" is its depiction of the search for love and identity which is embarked upon by two thin and rather good-looking young people. Instead, fans flag up the involvement of “The Blair Witch Project’s” co-creator Eduardo Sanchez, who helped finance this promising first time directorial effort. Writer-director Scott Leberecht, a talented former storyboard artist for Industrial Light & Magic and graduate of the American Film Institute, who’s worked behind the scenes on a good many A-list Hollywood features in his time, started shooting his contemporary take on the vampire mythos in 2007, sometime before the recent fad for fashionably pale, sexy boy teen vampires developed its unshakable attachment to the lily-white neck of a mainstream culture that quickly fell swooning for its charms. Although his lo-fi tale of one young man’s attempt to understand, to live with and eventually to accept his disturbing condition is shot through a social study prism of urban isolation and big city loneliness – leaving one inclined to file it alongside George A. Romero’s classic, “Martin” -- Leberecht’s primary reference points seem to be the early philosophical body horror work of David Cronenberg with its disease-as-personal-transformation theme; the existential alien-learning-to-live-among-us drama of Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth”; and the blood-craving-as-morality-sapping-addiction metaphor employed in Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction”, with just a soupçon of that attractive urban stylishness contrived for Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark”, thrown in. Newcomer Zak Kilberg superficially fits the required profile for boyish, razor-cheekboned heroes of the para-romantic sub-genre, but his character Jacob Grey lives the unnoticed life of the outsider due to a debilitating skin condition, endured since the age of twelve, which causes his skin to blister in the sunlight, leaving him with disfiguring burn scars which run all down his forearms. Now he lives in a claustrophobic, bunker-like basement flat by day and works the night shift as a security guard from the offices of a sterile downtown public utilities building by night, rarely meeting or interacting with any people other than the office janitor (Tracey Walter). His only escape is his art – which takes the form of a series of vivid abstract oil paintings depicting dazzling, tangerine hued rays of light emanating from boldly dabbed sunsets, all of which clutter his meagre living space and which he also uses, ironically enough, to board-up the only two tiny windows in his cramped apartment so that he can permanently blot out the real thing. As he approaches the age of twenty-five, further worrying bodily changes seems to be taking place: Jacob suffers the symptoms of psoriasis, he has a constant craving for food, but no matter how much he eats he continues to lose weight and his doctor insists he’s malnourished and anaemic. Such symptoms indicate a serious illness but no diagnosis appears to be forthcoming from the medical establishment and, furthermore, what can explain the trance-like spells of delirium that overtake Jacob whenever he finds himself in close proximity to even the merest trace of human blood?

The film’s first act is a sedately paced slow burn, mostly occurring (like the majority of the film) at night, in urban Los Angeles locations illuminated by the pastel shades of local ambient neon strip-lighting emanating from its bars, shop store-fronts and uninhabited office complexes. Director of photography Lyn Moncrief makes the city of Los Angeles look desolate and sterile yet curiously beautiful – a concrete desert of anonymous skyscrapers, unpeopled boulevards and empty offices abandoned during the night but fringed by alluring candy coloured neon and punctuated by cool oasis’ of semi-lit back lots where weird subcultural things might be happening, away from prying eyes. Possibly taking its visual cue from Argento’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, the director and his cinematographer highlight the alienation theme by framing Jacob so that he always seems to be confined or boxed in by the transparent glass windows of the clinically lit downtown building in which he works (and by ‘works’ I mean 'sits staring into space'). Almost the whole film is photographed this way, using natural (or rather unnatural) light from the immediate environment and relying on streetlamps and store lighting to give the nocturnal city its distinctive flavour, thus providing the LA west coast landscape (often filmed from above with atmospheric time lapse photography) with as much of a personality in the film as its troubled characters.

The emphasis is on Jacob’s struggle to understand what is happening to him as his fixation takes a hold and he finds himself desperately driven to drink the residual blood from cuts of raw meat for sustenance, obtained from a local butchers’ shop. The turning point comes after his chance meeting with Mary (Maya Parish), a troubled, cocaine snorting cigarette girl whom he strikes up a rapport with outside an LA club. They form an instant connection through Mary’s interest in Jacob’s art work and her subsequent endeavours to fix up a showing for him at a downtown gallery in Santa Monica. They are both, in certain different respects, outsiders, and Mary identifies with Jacob’s artistic alienation and sensitivity, yet their relationship is fraught with difficulties, misunderstandings and fears: when Mary suffers a nose bleed during an intimate moment between the two brought on by her cocaine use, it results in Jacob’s realisation that human blood is the thing he has been craving all this time. But the blood shot also brings about further changes to his body and his personality, changes first made visible when his eyes become opaque and alien-looking. This starts to happen for lengthier periods of time as the addiction takes hold.

The second half of the film balances several narrative concerns: firstly, the diffident progress of Jacob and Mary’s always tentative relationship (the vampire’s blood craving as metaphor for the chemical changes effected by the process of falling in love, etc.) is explored further as Mary attempts to reconcile her attraction to Jacob with her inability to understand the changes now overtaking him; secondly, a darker current emerges which draws on the metaphor of addiction: unwilling to prey on innocent people, but fearing that he is in fact doing so already without knowing it after a casual female acquaintance is discovered murdered and a suspicious local detective (Larry Cedar) starts hanging around Jacob’s place of work asking searching questions, Jacob resorts to nocturnally scavenging from the bio waste bins of the local hospital and finds himself falling under the malign sway of (and soon becoming dependent on) an amoral hospital orderly called Marcus (Jo D. Jonz) who will seemingly supply anything to anybody for the right price. Jacob is forced into a disturbing, twilight world of exploitation in which Marcus -- with the aid of his impressionable younger brother Russell (Arlen Escarpeta) -- extorts human blood from drug addicts in return for stolen hospital drug supplies, cynically turning one of his desperate clients into a 'blood cow', forced to satiate Jacob’s craving. Jacob is torn between accepting his true nature (and allowing a full transformation to take place) and his fears for Mary’s safety when she’s in his company; but his attempts to escape the influence of Marcus (and thus take responsibility for his predatory nature, rather than rely on someone else to do his dirty work for him) soon brings about its own equally potent dangers -- and Mary could yet become a victim of an underworld that beckons Jacob and now reaches out to claim everyone involved with him .

The slow pacing, low key atmospheric lighting and the diverse but unobtrusive score by composer Kays Alatrakchi, which deals mainly in ambient electronica and washes of reverb-laden guitar, but also in everything from background dub-step to folky ballades, focuses the attention on the performances of the two leads -- and thankfully Kilberg and Parish are watchable enough to make their faltering urban romance shtick interesting to eavesdrop on as it develops from wryly written observational material, conveying the awkwardness of the Hollywood dating scene, into an intense communication between two damaged souls that takes on a not inconsiderable erotic dimension. Similarly Jo D. Jonz is compelling as the manipulative and subtly insinuating yet persuasive Marcus; while Escarpeta brings great emotional realism to a role that could have become merely the routine bad guy’s sidekick part without this young actor’s intelligent but understated contribution. Leberecht also succeeds with his writing, in the early part of the film at least, which establishes Jacob’s physical uncomfortable-ness with his body and its unidentifiable ‘illness’ (Kilberg existed on a subsistence diet for ten days before shooting began in order to obtain the required gaunt look for the role). The screenplay fixes the character’s otherness in an alien biochemistry which sets him apart from other people, and leaves him unsure of his place in society. The unwillingness to accept the change that’s about to occur in him and the potential alienation from standard norms of morality it might also subsequently bring about, leads to a further retreat from the everyday world but the screenplay seems less surefooted once a strand of the plot involving Jacob’s discovery that his condition is infectious takes hold of the main narrative, and leads to a series of sequences that fail adequately to resolve, in a sufficiently dynamic manner, the dilemmas inherent in his relationships with the core group of people who occupy his life. Consequently, the film ends up feeling somewhat underdeveloped and undercooked, and winds up being ultimately unsatisfying as a whole, offering occasionally arresting imagery (thanks to Moncrief’s imaginative framing and evocative lighting), but not following through on the promise of the original set-up.

Maybe “Midnight Son” is also flawed because the film is largely the end result of Leberecht learning the craft of making movies on the fly and with only a minuscule budget. Although he’s been active as a visual effects supervisor on mainstream Hollywood films for many years, the post production work here (which includes the eye transformations which first alert Mary that Jacob is ‘not like other boys’) was completed through the expediency of having the film’s effects work made into part of a course project for students at The American Film Institute where Leberecht was once himself a pupil, a clever and productive means of cutting costs while also giving other students hands-on experience of working on a real movie. Nevertheless, the production stalled at several points during the completion of the movie, at one point requiring Leberecht to learn Final Cut Pro himself because he could not afford to employ a professional editor. But the final results of this stop-start, hand-to-mouth production are promising enough to lead one to feel inclined to feel it worth keeping an eye out for Leberecht’s future projects, especially if he is able to secure bigger budgets. Like the Soska Sisters (who also started out on similarly financially constrained, low budget fare such as “Dead Hooker in a Trunk”), he displays enough raw talent to enable the film to get by as a moderately entertaining reconfiguration of vampire lore with an agreeably contemporary urban noir slant, but there’s ultimately not enough substance here to make this linger long enough in the mind to distinguish it much from the plethora of other indie horror fare regularly surfacing on the festival circuit.

The DVD release from Monster Pictures UK presents an acceptable transfer of this HD-shot digital video offering, on a disc which includes a gushing commentary from Leberecht and the three main cast members, Zak Kilberg, Maya Parish and Jo D. Jonz, which is packed with interesting observations, particularly when it comes to discussion of Moncrief’s photography and lighting arrangements, as well as anecdotal tales about the actual shoot, including an explanation of how the film’s central love/sex scene between Kilberg and Parish was partially reshot in 2012 after it was decided in the edit that Joseph and Mary needed to consummate their relationship. Thus, the finished erotic scene now cuts imperceptibly between the 2007 material and shots from 2012! There are also video interviews with director Scott Leberecht and cinematographer Lyn Moncrief ,as well as slightly shorter ones with Kilberg, Parish and Jonz; plus four musical tracks appear here accompanied by a gallery of production stills and behind the scenes shots. Two deleted scenes (cut because they slowed down the narrative) are included, along with a theatrical trailer to round things off on what is a worthwhile first effort that has value and, at times, a great deal of atmosphere, but which won’t shatter anyone's world any time soon.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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