What makes for a great midnight movie? It’s sort of hard to pin down, one of those “you know it when you see it” sorts of things. Yet looking at the best of this year’s Tribeca Midnight slate, a few commonalities emerge. Honestly, I think it boils down to one thing – a midnight movie needs to keep you awake. It’s got to be effortlessly entertaining, able to keep you energized well after your bedtime. Many of the best of them are hilarious, sending you into peals of raucous laughter almost nonstop. Others are frightful, using fear and the thrill of the cheap scare to keep you on edge.
More than either of those, however, the best midnight movies are bonkers. Three of Tribeca’s selection this year are brashly, delightfully loopy. I’ll start with Frankenstein’s Army, a zombie-adjacent found-footage film from Dutch director Richard Raaphorst. It’s set in the last days of World War Two, following a Russian Red Army unit that has been sent into Germany for reconnaissance. They stumble upon an empty village, with a church that has renovated into a sinister factory of unknown purpose. They pick up a stress signal from other Russians, even though there should be no one else from the Red Army for hundreds of miles. They wander into the center of town, where the monsters begin to show up.
Admittedly, the found-footage element can get a little bit grating, and Raaphorst spends a little too much time in the first act of the film establishing characters and talking about the camera. It’s easy for this sort of film to get lost, uncertain how to set things up before introducing. Once they finally show up, however, Raaphorst and his bravura production design team go nuts. These Frankenstein’s monsters are pieced together from both man and machine, unholy assemblages of whatever happens to be lying around. There’s one with an airplane propeller instead of a head that’s a particular triumph of inspiration and costuming.
Frankenstein’s Army’s best moments are its scares, when a new monster jumps out from behind a corner. It’s at once scary and hilarious, an initial shriek followed by recognition of the absurdly-constructed mutant and then laughter. Raaphorst would like to have it both ways, it seems, and it often works. Other midnight films, however, dive in one direction or the other. Dark Touch, an impossibly creepy Irish horror flick from Marina de Van, puts all its eggs in the bonkers horror basket and it works.
Dark Touch opens with eleven-year-old Neve (Marie Missy Keating), a young girl of great terror. We don’t quite know why she’s so shaky, pale and quick to fear but her parents are stiff and harsh enough that we have some idea. Even the family home has a severe, modernist style that emphasizes the total alienation in which Neve is growing up. It’s no surprise, then, when the pointy wall fixtures and towering cabinets start to attack. The parents end up slayed by their own bad taste very early on in the film.
However, things quickly turn from the haunted house to the haunted child. Neve may be the source of these upsetting supernatural assaults, her shaky mental state causing the violence. Yet de Van is not interested in turning her into a villain. Dark Touch embraces the deranged instability of its protagonist, and gives it growth. Neve’s experiences make her not only conscious of her power but determined to make sense of it. She has an agency usually completely lacking in this possessed children, especially the girls. In the film’s chilling final act, she takes her strange self-empowerment in a direction both creepy and, in the spirit of the midnight screening, insane.
Fresh Meat is another dark film with a young female protagonist, though without supernatural powers. This riotous entertainment from New Zealand begins with Rina (Hanna Tevita), a young woman on her way home from boarding school for vacation. There’s been a lack of communication with her parents that causes a little awkwardness on her arrival, however: they don’t know that she’s a lesbian, and she doesn’t know that they’ve become cannibals.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a band of criminals is fleeing the police. Paulie Tan (Ralph Hilaga) and his accomplices just broke his brother, Ritchie (Leand Macadaan), out of a prison transit van. Now they need somewhere to hide, and they flee into suburbia. Little do they know that pulling up to Rina’s house will probably end in their being eaten.
It’s brutally funny from start to finish, and certainly more gross than it is scary. An unlikely but entirely expected romance between Rina and Gigi (Kate Elliott), the lone woman among the criminals, is delightfully pulpy. Rina’s father (Temuera Morrison), the most enthusiastic of the cannibals, puts in an performance of brash brawn and real ironic wit. His fanaticism comes from an old religion, one that he seems to have re-invented himself. It’s based in Maori history but, as he explains, “we aren’t cannibals because we’re Maori, we’re Maori who happen to be cannibals.” Fresh Meat turns New Zealand racial prejudices upside down, and the result is a hilarious work of satire that is enjoyable well beyond the borders of the island nation.