Credit: Quiver Distribution
by Jake Tropila Featured Film Genre Views

Night Shift — The China Brothers

March 7, 2024

When wielded effectively, isolation and fear of the unknown can be two surefire ingredients for a memorable horror experience. The former can create a perfect sense of helplessness, which would only be compounded by the latter, wherein the inexplicable overrides the logical and suddenly anything and everything terrifying can become a reality. This is especially true of finding oneself stuck in an unfamiliar setting, and therein lies the premise behind Night Shift, the first feature film from writer/directors Benjamin and Paul China (credited as “The China Brothers”). Looking to squeeze every ounce of dread from the story of a young woman working alone in a strange new environment, the China Brothers have a solid foundation for a sturdy horror film. It’s the direction the narrative ultimately goes that’s most troubling, as the duo squander a decent setup with a dismal payoff, taking the least interesting route with their debut.

It’s a quiet evening at the All Tucked Inn motel, and new-to-town Gwen Taylor (Phoebe Tonkin) is reporting for her first overnight shift. Relieving manager/owner Teddy (Lamorne Morris) from the front desk, Gwen is given a brief lay of the land before being left to her own devices, tasked with running 20 rooms in what’s essentially the middle of nowhere (Wi-Fi is spotty at best; food delivery options are scarce). While the night commences with some typical unpleasantness — a loose roach here, a used condom there, a storage room infested with a den of rodents — it’s not long before the spookiness really kicks off. Soon enough, Gwen begins receiving phone calls from unoccupied rooms, and various apparitions start lurking in the dark all around the premises. There’s also a jet-black sedan that ominously drives by, and breaking news on the television reports a deranged convict with homicidal tendencies on the loose. Even the motel’s lone occupant, a teenage runaway named Alice (Madison Hu), seems to be harboring some dark secrets of her own. With what seems like an entire deck stacked against her, will Gwen be able to survive the night?

Single-location horror films are nothing new, but the China Brothers seek to make the most out of their motel’s inherent creepiness. The main office is host to a collection of taxidermized animals, which includes Yogi, the affectionately-named stuffed bear head that’s prone to falling off the wall at inopportune moments. Customers are rare, but one instance does include an obnoxiously rich couple looking for a place to get their rocks off (the husband is played by Patrick Fischler, of Winkie’s Diner fame in Mulholland Drive), and the pool was drained by an unfortunate sinkhole. Seemingly alone, Gwen makes the best out of her own experience in hospitality, until she learns she’s not quite alone at all. A few unwanted spectral guests attempt to stake their claim on the property, honing in on the vulnerable Gwen. One standout sequence finds Gwen monitoring the movements of an apparition on camera as it gets closer and closer to the office, yet nothing is actually in sight when she looks out the window. Spooky.

Is the motel really haunted? Is there a serial killer on the loose? Or is Gwen just losing her mind? Unable to help themselves, the China Brothers answer all these questions and more, leaving little to the imagination as Night Shift goes out of its way to explain everything. Once the climactic twist is revealed — the nature of which we’ll leave unmentioned here — there’s little direction for the film to go, spilling bloodshed as it drags its limp form to a forgone conclusion. (Mercifully, the feature is brief, hitting the end credits just before the 80-minute mark.) The China Brothers certainly aim to please with Night Shift and demonstrate a modicum of instinct with the genre, but true inspiration only comes in fits and spurts, leaving one hoping they’ll take another pass (or two) at the screenplay before they embark on their next feature film.

DIRECTORS: The China Brothers;  CAST: Phoebe Tonkin, Lamorne Morris, Madison Hu, Christpher Denham;  DISTRIBUTOR: Quiver Distribution;  IN THEATERS: March 8;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 22 min.