Thursday, October 29, 2015


I didn't have time to do a film for Halloween this year (I wrote something Halloween-themed for The Pink Smoke) so I reached out to a few contributors to take care of that for me. This year Nathaniel Drake Carlson tackles Matthew Chapman's Heart Of Midnight.
It's always a pleasure to have Mr. Carlson visit the empire (this is his third contribution this year). If you haven't read his thoughts on Blackhat & Some Call It Loving, do yourself a favor and give those a read after this.


Much of the success of Matthew Chapman's Heart of Midnight lies in its aesthetic, hermetic self-enclosure, its building of a whole world for itself within those boundaries. This extends beyond the look and feel of the picture and into its thematic substance as well. A harbinger of what Lynch would do later with Twin Peaks, Heart of Midnight attempts a blend between a Grand Guignol operaticism of hyper heightened style and a brute psychological realism, suggesting that one extends from the other and that each is the other's appropriate complement. The psychological trauma goes very deep here and Chapman understands that the horror tropes are not a cheap trivialization of the subject matter at all but rather a fitting expression. Certainly it is often lurid in the extreme but that B-movie exploitation gloss is made suddenly substantive and relevant for us by association with the bracing content. We're challenged to take it seriously as the stuff of modern myths.

The film is really a showcase too for Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose performance as Carol is among the finest of the 80's and among her own personal best. It's a refined and carefully crafted performance, all the more remarkable in the midst of the hysterical excess surrounding it but inextricable from all that hysteria, shaped in response to it. What Leigh does so powerfully and with such understated resolve is to fashion a portrait of a frayed woman at the edge, trying to keep her psyche together but gradually falling apart in the face of traumas both inexplicable and all too clearly real. Leigh must then navigate this terrain with care and she does, her every reaction, even when in rooms alone (which is often), a mix of fragility and determination but also always indicative of a deeper and barely managed permanent state of distress. Her scenes with Peter Coyote's character are a welcome relief as the two of them have a comfortable rapport, at ease with one another even when they are suspicious or uncertain of each other's motives. Mention must also be made of Yanni's extraordinary musical score, a mix of the dissonant and the sweepingly romantic, matching the film's own distinctive range of expression.

Heart of Midnight recalls certain forerunners while foreshadowing others. While the thematic aspects remind me of Lynch, aesthetically the film bears a resemblance too, especially in terms of use of sound (the sound design during the sequence in which Carol examines the upstairs rooms in The Midnight is reminiscent of Jeffrey's initial inspection of the Deep River apartments in Blue Velvet--a deeply buried industrial ambiance suggestive of an unsettling unspecifiable form of life). There are also elements here which we get later in Egoyan's Exotica: the club as character unto itself, place as psychic space with all the implied labyrinthine passageways accompanying it, but also the unique conciliatory ending in which established opposing characters are brought together in an embrace which acknowledges the need for healing rather than rote confrontation or trite victory and infers in doing so what lay at the heart of the antagonism all along. And, of course, any "horror" picture of this sort will recall The Shining and Chapman indulges too in ghosts made real and a continuity of underlying perversity over time with all its effects made pronounced and undeniable. But I also especially like Chapman's final scene which mirrors the out-of-time final image in the Kubrick film but is more subtle as it only suggests its fantastical nature and the way that may guise a continued lingering trauma.

Heart of Midnight is also exceptionally well structured. The aforementioned tour through the upstairs rooms at the club builds slowly in unsettling detail with intimations of abuse never far away. This culminates in the scene of the assault upon Carol by intruders from outside, significantly outside forces. Once again the expressive style detailing one specific thing is paralleled with the separate incidents of a more prosaic and blunt reality. In this way Chapman makes his point about the confluence of the two. Also appreciated is the fact that the real arch-villain of the piece is displaced or removed from the start. There is in fact then no way to reach a satisfying kind of conventional resolution. All that can be done is deal with the results of his actions. In that way the movie is surprisingly moralistic but it works because it's not just some mere scold or hysterical reactionism (despite the pitch throughout) but builds instead a careful and convincing case.

One other thing worth noting. The UK DVD version of this film is significantly longer than the US cut (which is the sole cut available on the new Kino Blu). Not sure what to make of this as the longer cut has more sustained impact as it's built better, slower and steadier and is just generally richer. Maybe US distributors didn't like that pacing but cutting it down to get to the "horror" misses the point that the horror is suffused into the entire thing and an increased bluntness doesn't benefit or do justice to what Chapman is doing. Having said that there are some trims to the blatant horror stuff at the end too so who knows what the motivation was. Also, Brenda Vaccaro's part (as Jennifer Jason Leigh's mother) is reduced to almost nothing in the US cut which has makes Carol seem more isolated and disconnected. That eliminates much of the psychological realism complicated later by the sheer, almost surreal hysteria, but it also enhances that sense of desperate solitude and uncertainty so in those particular respects then I guess it is a more effective cut. Still, I wish the longer version would get a wider release and an eventual Blu treatment of its own.


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