Stephen Arnell

Films about midnight

Films about midnight
Image: Shutterstock
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As we count down the remaining days and hours to 2022, a cinematic tour through ten motion pictures when midnight has special meaning.

Since Midnight Mass is celebrated on the evening when Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas Day, it makes sense that the hour is not associated with evil or supernatural goings on – except, that is, for St George’s Eve.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Jonathan Harker is warned: 'It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?'

In the US, ‘Midnight Movies’ (B-pictures and exploitation flicks) were traditionally programmed late night in roadshows and more offbeat venues but by the end of the 1980s the practice had effectively ended, although there have been revivals.

Quentin Tarantino has hosted midnight showings of his favourite cult movies at his New Beverly Cinema and paid tribute to the genre with 2007’s so-so Grindhouse double feature with Robert Rodriguez.

In an interesting piece of symmetry, the director’s first screen writing credit was for the 1991 thriller Past Midnight, starring Rutger Hauer, Natasha Richardson and Paul Giamatti.

London-based film buffs of a certain age will remember late night screenings at the Scala in King’s Cross, which dabbled in more arthouse fare.

Returning to the subject of midnight-connected movies:

Midnight in Paris (2011) Amazon Rent/Buy

Surprisingly Quentin Tarantino named Woody Allen’s comedy as his top movie of 2011. As his other choices included Paul Anderson’s awful Three Musketeers remake and The Hangover Part II, he certainly isn't the go-to guy for film recommendations.

When holidaying in Paris, jaded screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) finds himself travelling into the past at the stroke of midnight every evening, where he meets a host of Parisian luminaries from various ‘Golden Ages’ of the City of Light. These include F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and many others.

Allen gave the role of Musée Rodin guide to Carla Bruni, wife of then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, so presumably access to the sights of the city was relatively unrestricted.

Before Midnight (2013) Amazon Rent/Buy

The final part (for now?) of Richard Linklater’s much-loved trilogy that charts the course of a romantic relationship sees Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) on holiday with their twin daughters in Greece, dealing with a variety of middle-aged crises including careers, Jesse’s son by a previous marriage, and falling out of love.

The proceedings come to a climax of sorts one evening when the couple address their problems in an outdoor taverna. Before Midnight was shot on the Mani peninsula of the Peloponnese, including the home of acclaimed travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011).

Gremlins (1984) Amazon Rent/Buy

Although overshadowed at the time of its release by Ghostbusters, Joe Dante’s comedy-horror Gremlins has established itself as a seasonal classic.

Inspired in part by Warner Brothers WWII cartoons, where pesky Gremlins caused indiscriminate havoc on machinery, the movie sees small town America under attack by the creatures when well-meaning bank clerk Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) ignores the strict rules regarding the upkeep of his cute new pet, a ‘Mogwai’ he names Gizmo.

The rules? Never expose a Mogwai to light – especially sunlight, which will kill it; don’t allow any contact with water; and, most importantly, never feed one after midnight. There wouldn’t be much of a plot if these instructions were heeded, so obviously they aren’t – and chaos ensues.

With surprisingly dark moments, Gremlins is perhaps not one for young children, as it was rated PG-13 under a new system suggested by the movie’s producer Steven Spielberg.

A Midnight Clear (1992) MGM Channel

Keith Gordon’s (Mother Night) elegiac WWII movie is set in the Ardennes just before the outbreak of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944).

When a squad of German soldiers signal their desire to surrender in a faked firefight (so their families are not persecuted by the Nazis back home) their American counterparts must decide whether to take them at their word. A strong cast includes Ethan Hawke (again), Gary Sinise, Peter Berg, and Frank Whaley.

The phrase 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear' comes from the 1849 poem and Christmas carol written by pastor Edmund Sears.

Midnight Special (2016) Amazon Rent/Buy

There are echoes of both John Carpenter (Starman) and Spielberg (Close Encounters and ET) as well as Escape/Race to Witch Mountain (1975, 2009) in Jeff Nichols’ tale of Alton (Jaeden Martell), a boy with special powers on the run from cult members and the FBI, aided by biological father Roy Tomlin and his pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton).

During their flight Alton reveals the existence of a highly advanced parallel world existing next to ours. The title of the movie is said to reference a prisoner work song of the American South, where the lights of the Midnight Special passenger train shining into cells was taken as a sign of eventual freedom.

After Hours (1985) Amazon Rent/Buy

Office worker Paul Hackett’s (Griffin Dunne) late night odyssey into New York City's SoHo district is a blackly comic treat, one of Martin Scorsese’s hidden gems.

Hackett’s lust for kooky Marcy (Roseanna Arquette) sees him encounter an increasingly deranged group of oddballs, including a sadomasochistic sculptor (Linda Fiorentino), a Monkees-loving waitress (Terri Garr), a vigilante mob, assorted punk rockers and an unhinged Mister Softee truck driver (Catherine O’Hara).

After accidentally losing his cab fare, Dunne attempts to get home using his few remaining coins, only to find that the subway charge increased at midnight…

A Feast at Midnight (1994) full movie available to watch on YouTube

This low-budget prep school drama is a determinedly old-fashioned affair, as new boy Magnus (Freddie Findlay) encounters bullies, cold-hearted teachers, (Christopher Lee as 'Raptor' Longfellow – a concession to modernity, as Jurassic Park was released the year before) and…Michael Gove.The future Minister for Leveling Up took the small role of the school’s Chaplain, which required mainly knowing reaction shots and the odd smirk.

Feast also features trusty thesps Robert Hardy, Edward Fox and Samuel West, as well as Playaway’s Brian Cant. The picture revolves around Magnus’ creation of a midnight feast club for other outcast and bullied pupils. Director Justin Hardy (no relation to Robert) is the son of the late Robin Hardy, who helmed cult favourite The Wicker Man (1973), which also starred Christopher Lee.

Round Midnight (1986)

Bertrand Tavernier’s (Coup de Torchon) splendid jazz-themed movie returns us to Paris, where drug-addicted saxophonist (played by real-life jazzer Dexter Gordon) plies his trade late night at the famed Blue Note club.

Tavernier captures perfectly the smoky, bleary-eyed vibe of early morning jazz clubs; the score is magnificent (including performances from Gordon himself, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Bobby McFerrin, John McLaughlin, Chet Baker, and Wayne Shorter) which helps offset the downbeat storyline.

Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (1997) Amazon Buy Only

Clint Eastwood was felt to have fumbled his adaptation of John Berendt's popular 1994 non-fiction novel about the trial of antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) for the murder of rent boy Billy Hanson (Jude Law).

The movie wheels out all the familiar tropes of the Deep South (Savannah, Georgia in this case), and, for animal lovers, features a committed performance from Flavis, a trained squirrel.

Kevin Spacey’s turn as Williams was criticised; supposedly he based his interpretation on tape recordings where the real-life antiques dealer had been taking Valium.

The pictures title is a reference to the ‘hoodoo’ definition of midnight as the time for both good (11.30pm to 12am) and evil magic (midnight to 12.30am).

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Felt by a substantial minority to be Orson Welles’ finest film - and by the director himself, Chimes at Midnight skilfully blends text and scenes from Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Welles plays the garrulous drunkard Sir John Falstaff, the mentor famously rejected by Prince Hal when he ascends the throne as Henry V (Keith Baxter).

Shakespeare’s line 'we have heard the chimes at midnight' refers to both late night carousing and the sad fact that time inevitably passes and fortunes fade.

Falstaff (who was probably a composite of two actual historical figures) was also played by Joel Edgerton in Netflix’s excellent The King (2019).

And, if you are not yet sated for Midnight Movies, I can recommend the comedy-thriller Midnight Run (1998), notable for the comic performance of Charles Grodin as mob accountant Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas and Robert De Niro as bounty hunter Jack Walsh, where the actor avoids the tiresome mugging he later indulged in when attempting a humorous role.

In bounty hunter slang, a ‘midnight run’ is an easy job, but not in this case. 

Midnight Express (1978) is of course a much tougher watch, but boasts great acting, especially from the late John Hurt as imprisoned heroin addict Max. The film's title originated from prison argot for an escape attempt.