Making a serious-minded vampire movie in the Twilight era ("He needs more glitter...I said MORE GLITTER DAMMIT!") has got to be tough. Sharing the same genre space as a recent cultural juggernaut (whether the status is deserved or not) influences how your film gets marketed and especially how it is perceived. While Midnight Son definitely features a romantic subplot between its leads (one a vampire, one not so much), that is far from being its ultimate selling point. What writer/director Scott Leberecht has crafted here (in his debut no less) is a touching and ethereal story of metamorphosis where growing pains threaten to leave scars.
Leberecht draws us into his tale by introducing Jacob (Zak Kilberg), a shy and solitary security guard. He works the night shift because he has a skin condition (if you can call catching on fire a skin condition) that prevents him from being in the sun. Lately, he's also been experiencing these crippling hunger pains that single-serving frozen pizzas just can't seem to take care of. Soon he moves on to thick, juicy steaks before finally realizing that the bloody drippings of raw meat are more to his liking. While he is in the process of fine-tuning his dietary plan, he runs into Mary (Maya Parish) outside a club where she's selling candy and cigarettes to strangers. When she isn't doing that, she claims to be a bartender...and when she isn't doing that, she's dealing with the side-effects of a nasty little drug habit.
Of course, Jacob doesn't get to stand in judgment since he has a shameful secret of his own (the whole blood drinking thing). His problem takes a turn for the worse when he accidentally tastes a few drops of Mary's blood. He experiences an awakening of sorts. He has finally found his elixir and there's no turning back now. This puts him on a collision course with Marcus (Jo D. Jonz), a hospital orderly who offers to sell Jacob packs of human blood. This arrangement works for a while until Jacob realizes that not all of Marcus's donors are equally willing. A moral stand leaves Jacob without a dealer and in fear of unraveling before Mary's suspicious eyes. If their budding relationship has any shot at survival, he'll have to figure out a way to control his compulsion. One way or another, it is safe to say there will be blood.
It's amazing just how mileage Leberecht gets out of the Vampire mythos by presenting elements of it in such a realistic and natural light. None of what happens to Jacob is especially novel but it feels fresh and dangerous because we feed off Kilberg's confusion and are invested in his path of discovery. Parallels are clearly drawn between the addictions that face Jacob and Mary but our reactions differ based on what we think we know about vampires. Of course we want Mary to clean up her act and stop using drugs but it's not so simple for Jacob. We already know what he is slow to recognize. He isn't just engaging in self-destructive behavior; the reality is that he is evolving. Once he accepts that, it is simply a matter of how much of his old way of life will survive the transition.
By bleeding (totally intended) all romanticism out of the subject, Leberecht forces us and his characters to reevaluate their situation as viewed through the harsh, uncompromising prism of reality. Positioned at the threshold of the familiar and the unknown, Jacob is damned if he does (accept his vampirism with all associated dangers) and damned if he doesn't (slowly wither away by denying his most basic needs). At least one of those options affords him some measure of mental freedom. Where Leberecht scores major points is in making this internal struggle so outwardly compelling. Marcus may be positioned as the villain of this piece but Jacob's resistance to change is the biggest obstacle in his own path.
Making Jacob's evolution entirely convincing falls on Kilberg's capable shoulders and he sells the heck out of it. His confusion is undercut by a blend of melancholy and curiosity. At one point, he watches old vampire movies and experiments with the potentially damaging effects of a tiny wooden cross...that's just plain funny. Maya Parish is similarly effective in her portrayal of Mary. She is the outgoing yin to Jacob's withdrawn yang. While Mary has demons of her own to contend with, Parish exudes enough strength for herself and Jacob. Jo D. Jonz rounds out the central cast with a performance that goes beyond pure villainy and enters a grey zone where he could be an anti-hero worth following. Credit again goes to Leberecht, for creating such strong and distinct characters that the cast effortlessly transforms while keeping the proceedings quite organic.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. This is an extremely low-budget film shot on the run with a prosumer level camera. It looks roughly how you would expect it to. Night shots (of which there are many) are sometimes quite grainy and contrast levels hover around the low-end of acceptable. Bright colors and flesh tones maintain their integrity but whites occasionally look sickly yellow. This is probably intentional. Soft shots abound but once again this only adds to the dreamy look the movie is going for. While the image isn't really sharp or entirely free of defects, it works just fine for (and sometimes enhances) the material at hand.
The audio was presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix. The mix was perfectly acceptable although I did notice that the dialogue was occasionally a bit too low. The rear surrounds were brought in sparingly as the front of the soundstage was dominant throughout. Kays Alatrakchi provides a minimalist score that suitably impresses with its restraint.
For a small independent film, the release certainly comes packed with quite a few extras. We kick things off with a pair of Deleted Scenes (1:58) that give us additional moments with Mary as she discusses her relationship with Jacob and during a revealing climactic car ride. A Trailer (2:27) for the film is also provided.
Interviews with the director, cinematographer and principal cast members give us an intimate look at the conception of the film. Scott Leberecht (17:47) unsurprisingly has the lengthiest segment and uses it efficiently. He discusses how he came up with the idea for the film and what aspects of vampire lore he wanted to primarily focus on. He also covers his approach to extracting natural performances from the actors and settling on a cohesive look for the film in collaboration with the cinematographer Lyn Moncrief. Surprisingly he even shares his idea for an epilogue that was never shot but would have provided the film with a clincher of a final frame.
Zak Kilberg (4:42) discusses his reaction to the script and what steps he took to physically prepare for his role. Maya Parish (5:02) covers similar ground before giving us some detail about how she came to be an executive producer for the film. Jo D. Jonz (5:02) gives a more subdued but equally intelligent interview as he delves into character motivations and finding nuances within the villain. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief (8:09) offers more technical details in his interview including the judicious use of digital noise as a storytelling device and working with budgetary limitations by scouting for locations that offered enough natural light.
We close things out with a Commentary track with Leberecht, Kilberg, Parish and Jonz. While covering some of the same ground as the interviews, the commentary track puts us in the midst of a very lively discussion between charming and eloquent participants. This one's an entertaining listen as the entire group shares anecdotes, covers technical details and discusses deep thematic concerns without skipping a beat.
It has been a while since I've taken a vampire film seriously. It is a testament to the skill and dedication of writer/director Scott Leberecht and his cast and crew, that they have given the genre a much needed transfusion with their micro-budgeted film. What they lacked in funds and resources, they made up for with sheer ingenuity and raw talent. Midnight Son has in abundance what no amount of money can buy: sensitivity and intelligence. Highly Recommended.