Any friend who asks you to sneak into an abandoned prison at night is not really your friend.
No film genre thrives on stupid characters like the horror genre. They’re not always needed, and obviously the best horror movies feature smart, well-rounded characters, but if the dumb ones didn’t exist roughly 83% of horror films wouldn’t either. The genre needs characters willing to do inane, nonsensical things, and when handled well the end result can still be plenty creepy and entertaining.
Against the Night handles its idiots pretty well.
Nine friends celebrating one of their own getting a new apartment see the conversation hijacked by the career aspirations of their most obnoxious member. Hank is a budding filmmaker who believes the only things that sell are supernatural reality shows like his own Children Who See Ghosts and sex tapes, so when the drinking games go dry at the end of the night he convinces the gang to help him with a new project. They head to the nearby and long-abandoned Holmesburg Prison, sneak in, and split up so Hank’s cameras can capture scared reactions throughout the dark and unsettling cell blocks.
The friends go along with it at first strictly for the lolz, but things quickly take a turn as strange noises and stranger happenings become the norm. It gets worse when they start disappearing, dying, and realizing that the prison may not be that deserted after all.
Writer/director Brian Cavallaro‘s Against the Night doesn’t break new ground and instead follows an expected path with its front half leading not so bright characters into a not so smart situation, but he delivers where it counts and manages a few surprises along the way.
Holmesburg is a very real prison in Philadelphia, and Cavallero takes good advantage of its long, spoke-like cell “blocks” stretching out from a center hub. The view is limited — there’s no power so what we see is instead lit by flashlight and handheld camera — but the cramped, run-down emptiness of it all comes through with chilling effect and a creepy atmosphere. Dozens of films with this identical setup go the found footage route leaving viewers the poorer for it, but Cavallaro wisely delivers a mix of traditional filmmaking and ff camera POV meaning the latter never grows tiresome or painful to the eyes. He avoids overdoing the night vision too, thankfully, and instead varies the formats throughout.
None of that would matter if the film did nothing with it, but happily the atmosphere and location aid in delivering some solid scares and moments of real intensity. The threat is teased several times via quick movements or heat signatures (via the FLIR Thermal Cam), but the first time it comes into proper view it’s played perfectly for maximum terror. Viewers and characters alike are smartly kept a bit in the dark (no pun intended but I also didn’t try to avoid it) as far as the identity of the killer. A growing paranoia suggests it might one of them, evidence points in a possible other direction, and a supernatural explanation hangs over it all.
Not everything succeeds as well, though, including the framing device that opens and closes the film. The plus side is seeing the always welcome Frank Whaley as a detective interviewing what appears to be the only survivor of the night — the bulk of the film is her story, albeit one showing numerous moments and scenes she wasn’t a part of — but the opening tips a certain element far too soon (and too heavily for viewers paying real attention). It’s also cruel to tease a professional actor in Whaley and then saddle the majority of the film with more of a mixed bag performer-wise. Most are at least competent, but a couple of the friends feel like Cavallaro is returning a favor by casting them.
Also, and I apologize in advance for criticizing something without spelling it out — no spoilers here — but the movie commits one of the genre’s most obnoxious sins not once, but twice. And it’s with the same character! As a hint it’s one also committed by the male lead in the otherwise excellent The Strangers (2008). It’s so annoyingly cheap.
Against the Night is a fun little horror movie making due on a clearly limited budget, and while it stumbles more than a few times it’s a success where it counts delivering atmosphere, scares, and creepy entertainment for genre fans.
Against the Night releases on VOD on March 27th, 2018.