Night’s End is a Frankensteined mess of horror movie modes that never achieves any formal or thematic cogency.
Jennifer Reeder has always gravitated toward highly particular subject matter, typically extended and fleshed out across a few different projects. Early in her career, she made a point of exploring white trash — both as an aesthetic and a socioeconomic condition — and more recently she has made study of female adolescence, often flourished with the supernatural, among other genre touches. This latter mode crescendoed with 2019’s Knives and Skin, a wonderful, singular oddity that is baked in Megan Abbott-esque teen femme noir, cut through with the acidic bite of Harold Pinter, and which recalls in setting the suburban blight cinema of the late ‘90s. (InRO’s Matt Lynch dubbed it something like “Nic Refn’s The Ice Storm,” which isn’t far off). It’s the rare kind of film that feels untouched by the regurgitative Hollywood machine, an eerie and grimy and stylish cocktail that manages to mutate its familiar parts into something genuinely other.
Which is why her latest, Night’s End, lands as such a thudding disappointment, a ragbag of various horror movie modes that fail to coalesce in any meaningful way — except perhaps in the film’s bugfuck finale, but that’s only because methodical slog pleasantly gives way to histrionic nonsense. Indeed, none of Reeder’s previous powers of alchemy are present in this story of Ken (Geno Walker), horror’s latest mentally-disturbed shut-in. As Night’s End opens, Ken is producing a video series where he details the history and haunting of his apartment. He has no other job at present, and as the film progresses, details are slowly doled out about his struggles with alcohol abuse (which ramp up across the film’s runtime), a nervous breakdown he suffered a few years ago, and the subsequent loss of his job and family in the wake of those two things. But he’s now on good terms with his ex, Kelsey (Kate Arrington), and her new husband, Isaac (Michael Shannon, in total goober mode), and regularly Zooms with both of them as well as childhood friend Terry (Felonious Munk). But as things must go in all haunted house — err, apartment — flicks, malevolence will out, and a few other characters will be pulled into Ken’s orbit by necessity, most notably Colin Albertson (Lawrence Grimm), an author and overall creepy dude. You know the rest.
Given the genre’s rich history with recluses and recent boom of elevated horror, it’s not hard to forecast a film in which Ken’s haunting is a multi-pronged metaphor for his mental illness, his seclusion, his various carried traumas. And it is that, but it’s also more. There’s no doubt that the film’s narrative pulp is cut with thematic throughlines regarding our Internet age: Reeder isn’t subtle in establishing the film’s essential dichotomy of physical isolation and technological connection; though Ken talks with friends and family and is amassing a small online following, his life is still operating as a shout into the social media void. But Reeder is at least more playful here than in your standard-fare issues-based horror, papering a distinctly ‘80s horror texture onto the film’s otherwise more contemporary aesthetic, as Ken’s apartment becomes increasingly menacing: nighttime sequences of spectral teals and orange glow from underneath doors give way to a melange of sinister reds, dutch and low angles, endless slow zooms, and pervasive glitchiness (nothing is scarier in 2022 than dial-up Internet). None of it is especially impressive technically, and it’s indeed all a little schlocky, but it creates an appealing dissonance with the film’s Screenlife-adjacent riffing, staking claim to more subjective Zoom horror territory where Ken remains a physical rather than digital presence throughout.
But the pleasure of this unholy marriage of modes is short-lived, and the whole thing begins to feel much more like a Covid-era episode of Ghost Hunters than anything genuinely menacing, eventually giving way to an (un)intentionally(?) hilarious climax that’s about as terrifying as a Tommy Bahama-sporting Michael Shannon gleefully slurping cereal earlier in the film (actually, it’s less terrifying than that). Reeder is unable to amass her myriad influences, of which there are many, into anything formally or thematically compelling. Night’s End superficially recalls, of course, the Unfriendeds and Hosts of the world, but also everything from the psycho-horror setting of The Tenant to the techno-isolation of Pulse to the occult proceduralism of A Dark Song, but in sourcing touchstones so widely, there’s little space left to develop any particular angle with depth or nuance. Ending the film with a smattering of gauche demonist iconography and apocalyptic implication seems to suggest that Reeder willfully leaned into this hodgepodge approach as an intentional, slightly winking mode, but all that really accomplishes is casting Night’s End as a film that ineffectually cribs from a whole mess of movies rather than a more limited few. An about-face on the striking success of her previous film, Reeder’s latest still bears the mark of a confident, bold director willing to shirk convention, but also proves, unequivocally, that the kitchen sink approach leveraged to such excellent ends with Knives and Skin is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the director.
You can stream Jennifer Reeder’s Night’s End on Shudder beginning on March 31.