By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Gabrielle Haugh, Lin Shaye and Grayson Gabriel
Written and directed by Travis Z
Even actresses doing significantly better than most in their age range can’t live on hit franchises alone, unfortunately, so here’s Lin Shaye in MIDNIGHT MAN, acting for all the world like she isn’t slumming in a murky imitation of her INSIDIOUS films.
Shaye brings inner life and authority to her crazy-old-lady role that this sub-James Wan supernatural schlocker doesn’t deserve. She plays the grown-up version of Anna, a little girl we first meet in a 1953 prologue, playing a deadly supernatural game with a pair of friends that requires them to stay within a salt circle on the floor to survive. One girl leaves that protection for no good reason other than to become the movie’s first casualty, and another child falls victim outside in its one genuinely startling moment. We later learn that the phantom behind the game preys on your worst fears and that this boy was scared of spiders; how that leads him to explode all over the lawn is anyone’s guess.
Anyhow, in the present day, Shaye’s Anna still lives in the same house where those awful events occurred, and her college-age granddaughter Alex (Gabrielle Haugh) has moved back in to look after her in the wake of her mother’s death. This home is one (ostensibly) spooky place, with a wall full of clocks, a freaky mannequin that you just know is only there so it can start moving by itself later, lights that all seem to be at half power and a constant low hum on the soundtrack. In a lot more time than it should take, Alex and her friend Miles (Grayson Gabriel) uncover the “Midnight Game,” and when Anna discovers them, she howls “You opened the gaaaame!” before passing out.
Despite this, and Miles observing, “It doesn’t look like a fun game. Where’s the dice?” he and Alex decide to play it anyway. Why they do so is completely inexplicable, and not just because of Anna’s freakout. It’s hard to understand why the kids in that prologue took part in the game either, because there’s no apparent goal or positive upside to it, and its rules are so ridiculously convoluted, they seem designed to dissuade people from playing. The only result of writing your name on a piece of paper, lighting a candle, knocking 22 times on a door, etc. is your space being invaded by the Midnight Man, the 270th cinematic boogeyman with the ability to climb walls, a basso profundo voice and a penchant for subjecting his victims to the things they’re most frightened of.
MIDNIGHT MAN doesn’t do anything interesting with this timeworn premise, especially because we don’t learn what those personal terrors are before the Midnight Man exploits them. Instead, half the would-be suspense seems to derive from characters hurrying to light protective candles after they’ve mysteriously gone out. At one point, Miles describes the game as “a real bad version” of Pandora’s box, as if the original was chopped liver. Along the way, Robert Englund, whose legacy of screen villainy is not challenged one iota by the Midnight Man, turns up for expositional purposes as Dr. Harding, and the young lead duo are joined by their friend Kelly (Emily Haine), who knows all about how the game works until she doesn’t, and drops the word “creepypasta” to make the movie seem hip.
MIDNIGHT MAN was written and directed by Travis Z of the notorious CABIN FEVER remake, and although none of the advance promotion noted it, this film is a remake too; it’s based on a 2013 Irish chiller by Rob Kennedy. Z’s script is full of unfortunate lines like “This is bad,” “This is ridiculous” and “How could this possibly get worse?” and at one point Dr. Harding notes that “The Midnight Man doesn’t like to lose,” as an excuse for both the villain and the movie to cheat on the laboriously established rules. It all winds up with a completely predictable “EPILOGUE” (yes, it’s labeled as such) before the end credits reveal that no less than 25 producers and executive producers were involved—making one wonder how a film with so many cooks could wind up so underheated.