Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In short: Midnight (1982)

aka Backwoods Massacre

Doubting Catholic schoolgirl Nancy (Melanie Verlin) runs away from home after her alcoholic cop stepfather (Lawrence Tierney following the smell of an alcohol providing paycheck, no doubt), tries to rape her.

She falls in with two poor college boys (Charles Jackson & Tom Hall) on their way to Florida. And these guys truly are poor. Their money is just enough for keeping their car in gas, but to acquire food, they are stealing from small grocery stores along the way, a tactic which could bring a mixed-race buddy pair into more trouble than would be appropriate in the middle of Rednecklandia.

Doing this with their under-aged guest and in an area from which the soon to be deceased Reverend Exposition (Bob Johnson) tried to warn them away isn't exactly going to improve their survivability. As it turns out, a hasty retreat from the police only leads the trio into the clutches of a family of backwoods satanists trying to resurrect their mum through female sacrifices.

Nancy's the lucky one of the three, with a nice direct line to a white-bearded lady above (I do understand the concept of prayer right, I hope?) and a drunk stepfather with a guilty conscience on her trail.

John Russo's Pittsburgh based Midnight is a more interesting film than I had suspected. Russo's script tries its hardest to enrich the backwoods slasher genre thematically by giving it a slight social realist bend. It mostly does this by adding a more complex background to the victims than is common and by first placing them in the way of horrifying real world danger and confronting them - unsubtly, it has to be said - with things like casual racism and poverty. Of course (keeping Russo's background as scriptwriter of Night of the Living Dead in mind this should come as no surprise) there's also a healthy distrust of authority figures in there.

Unfortunately, Midnight is not as successful as it is interesting. As a horror film, it lacks in emotional impact. It goes through all the motions of classic backwoods slasher films, but is seldom convincingly nasty or brutal.

The death scene of our two male college kids being executed by two of our backwoods maniacs dressed up as cops is the only true exception to this. The very casual violence committed by cruel people in uniform resonates, but also makes a promise the rest of the film isn't willing or able to deliver on. What follows is mostly genre-standard, just less gory and hampered by Russo's awkward and stiff staging of violence.

Most disappointing is that Russo doesn't integrate the themes he has brought up earlier into the slasher business. As soon as the usual mad killer stuff starts, everything else is forgotten.

But at least it is a film with a few ambitions.


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