“THE MIDNIGHT GAME” (Miami International Film Fest Review)
Beware a high school jock bearing booze and pagan rituals…
A maxim for the ages, truly, as well as the distilled moral at the heart of THE MIDNIGHT GAME the latest entry in the evergreen sub-subgenre of oblivious-teenagers-just-want-to-party-but-unwittingly-open-the-doorway-to-evil films.
The opening act here will be familiar to anyone possessing even a cursory knowledge of the genre: Kaitlan is home alone for the weekend. Naturally, the pretty blonde teenager invites over her sassy brunette bestie, Jenna, and the requisite over-amped goth outcast tagalong, Rose, who in turn tip off a couple of letterman studs to the brewing soiree. At first Kaitlan is leery of letting Shane and Jeff stay—her business trip-bound mother literally led her in a chant of No boys! on the way out the door—but she doesn’t want to be seen as a square and, anyway, they’ve brought beer, have cute dimples, and…
Well, really, it’s all fairly perfunctory and disposable. Which is as it should be: A film imbued with as much narrative predestination as THE MIDNIGHT GAME is, by necessity, more about the journey than the terminus. The fabulously WITCHBOARD-y one-sheet has already established we’re not in for a coming of age character study or SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER knockoff. This film’s entire raison d’être is a roller coaster depiction of innocent amusements going south in a big, big way, and, sure enough, to that end Shane soon suggests they liven things up with—cue minor key synth chords—The Midnight Game.
The appeal of the game is a little difficult to fathom, but the setup itself is simple enough: Confess your greatest fear, spill a few drops of your own blood on a note card bearing your name, kill the lights, bring out the candles, knock on a wooden door twenty-two times, wait for some freaky shit to go down. There is, of course, a catch: Those who flub any part of the ritual must chill in a circle of salt from the stroke of twelve until 3:33 a.m. or else risk a visit from the Midnight Man, a murky, ghostly figure who brings his victims’ aforementioned phobias to corporeal life.
This hardly seems the sort of pastime destined to overtake get-together classics like, say, pin the tail on the donkey or Marco Polo, and, indeed, during a moment of clarity Kaitlan asks the salient question: “Why would anybody play that?”
“It’s a pagan ritual,” Shane replies. “It’s designed to teach you how to follow the rules. If you don’t follow the rules then you get punished.”
In the real world we’d (quite reasonably) presume a gaggle of ecstatically unsupervised teenagers would be trying to avoid, not summon, a malevolent authority figure intent whose modus operandi sounds akin to a FIFTY SHADES OF GREY sequel starring the Candyman. In this celluloid cosmos, however, the only thing more inevitable at this point than these kids engaging in a pagan ritual discovered by the captain of the football team on the Internet is the arrival of the Midnight Man himself.
Throughout the ensuing creepy/fun romp director A.D. Calvo (HOUSE OF DUST) does an excellent job of interweaving a very stylized, elegant vision of the teens’ divergent materializing phobias—falling, insanity, ghosts—into the collective terror of the film’s overarching conceit. THE MIDNIGHT GAME could probably delve a little deeper into its characters’ hauntings/psychotic episodes and even add a few more visceral scares throughout, but Calvo’s ability to create atmosphere and build suspense lends welcome dimension to a film that could also have easily devolved into a series of shock cuts and big bangs—and a new blade on a vintage saw is rarely a bad thing.