Welcome to Scared in Segments, a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short-form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
The poster for After Midnight is eerily familiar to horror fans who grew up with brick-and-mortar video shops. It’s an image that’s hard to forget. A woman, terrified for reasons unknown, is being devoured by a flaming clock face. In this hidden anthology, three spooky stories are the ingredients to solving a haunting case of déjà vu. And, with Nightmare on Film Street exploring horror’s relationship with time this month, it only makes sense to see what happens After Midnight.
It’s a brand new semester and college student Allison (Jillian McWhirter) is nervous. These aren’t the average first-day-of-class jitters, though. Allison can’t quite place why she’s so restless, but it has to do with her Psychology of Fear course. In class, the professor demonstrates his unorthodox methods to the students. This outrageous stunt puts him in hot water with the administration, and he’s forced to resume a more traditional style of teaching. However, the more eager students take the professor up on private lessons at his house. It’s there that Allison then learns the true definition of fear.
THE FRAMING STORY — “ALLISON’S STORY“
Professor Edward Derek (Ramy Zada, Two Evil Eyes) goes too far when he pulls a mean-spirited prank on the students. One particular pupil named Russ (Ed Monaghan) especially bears the brunt of the teacher’s cruel joke. As a result, the class is strictly by the book now.
The professor offers a compromise where students can visit his house after hours for a more “adventurous curriculum.” Allison and her friend Cheryl (Pamela Adlon, The Gate II: Trespassers) volunteer and arrive with a handful of other brave students. To better illustrate what fear means, Derek and his guests share scary stories.
Meanwhile, another visitor is on his way…
After Midnight is masterly when it comes to building tension. Both Allison‘s unearthly intuition and the professor’s morbid humor set a dark tone. What isn’t clear yet is how it all comes together. In due time, that will be explained. For now, we cautiously step into a world where the mundane becomes ominous. The setup — strangers stranded in an unknown house on a dark and stormy night — is a cliché by today’s standards. In this case, it’s an effective lure.
In between the other stories, an insidious underplot works its way up to the fantastic finale. All the strain so far finally culminates into a clever meshing of reality and nightmarish fantasy. Not every anthology puts this much effort into its wraparound. Peppered with timeless-looking practical visual effects and arresting panic, the framing segment is remarkable.
STORY 1 — “THE OLD DARK HOUSE“
Kevin (Marc McClure, Grim Prairie Tales) and wife Joan (Nadine Van der Velde, Critters) take a midnight drive after celebrating the husband’s birthday. Their car breaks down near an infamous murder house, which they break into in hopes of finding help. The longer they stay, the couple worries the old place isn’t so empty after all.
This warm-up tale is a perfect mood-setter. It doesn’t exactly stray from routine — a scary house with a terrible history, the potential for death at the hands of a crazed killer, and so on — but how it concludes is grimly delightful. The success of this one is largely owed to the venue. Creepiness is not organic as it’s piped into this dusty and dimly lit mansion with no subtlety. That being said, it all makes for a macabre opener.
STORY 2 — “A NIGHT ON THE TOWN“
Four teenagers are looking for some fun in the city, but they can’t get into any of the clubs. So, they drive aimlessly until they’re lost and nearly without gas. When they stop at a remote gas station for fuel and directions, the young women find themselves at the mercy of a depraved man and his vicious attack dogs.
Often regarded as the weakest of the bunch, “A Night on the Town” still manages to muster up some basic thrills. Its inclusion here is deftly hinted at earlier as Professor Derek writes “cynophobia” (a fear of dogs) on the chalkboard.
Ostensibly, this is a slasher with very little slashing going on. In an interesting turn of events, though, the would-be killer is sidelined and replaced with man’s best friends. Or, in this case, the protagonists’ worst enemies. Passing the human villain’s nefarious behavior onto the dogs — who now embody some part of their owner’s primal urges — is, sadly, no substitute for an actual climax.
STORY 3 — “ALL NIGHT OPERATOR“
Before answering machines were commonplace, services like All Nite were a lucrative business. Callers would have their calls routed to an operator who would then take a message for the client. Unfortunately, All Nite is on its last legs, and Alex (Marg Helgenberger, Species) is left on her own to cover the graveyard shift. An actress has been subjected to numerous calls from an unhinged stalker. When Alex fails to properly relay his message, she becomes the next target of the deranged fan.
The last slice of this fear-flavored pie is a doozy. And, again, Professor Derek outlines what lies ahead with the writings on the wall: “The Truth Hurts, But Lies Kill.” Overzealous fandom at its worst powers a worthwhile cat-and-mouser. One man’s toxic infatuation turns lethal, and any sign of dishonesty is deemed punishable in his crazy eyes.
Like “A Night on the Town,” “All Night Operator” functions well as a woman-in-peril thriller. This one is more fulfilling as far as suspense goes. Everything feels more calculated here, and it’s done to a great degree. Ending on that perilous split diopter shot is nothing short of chilling.
Ken and Jim Wheat picked an unfortunate time to debut their anthology. By 1989, once-reliable horror formulas had been exhausted, and target audiences were losing touch with the genre that entertained them for so many years. There was no telling what would be a surefire hit in the decade’s tail end. After Midnight hardly left an impression back then, but it has certainly found a following today. Cinematography and production design are each estimable. What the individual stories lack in innovation, they make up for in character. Their oneness emphasizes the movie’s ultimate, fearful theme that time will eventually catch up with us.