'Heart of Midnight' Burns Slowly With Sex and Trauma

by Imran Khan

29 October 2015

Vampishly smug and broodingly perverse, Heart of Midnight explores everything from childhood sexual trauma, post-'70s feminism, and Euro-trash horror.
 
cover art

Heart of Midnight

Director: Matthew Chapman
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Peter Coyote

US DVD: 27 Oct 2015

Matthew Chapman’s highly bizarre 1988 thriller, Heart of Midnight, is an exhaustive exercise in style, to be sure. He’s got the haunted boarding house, the lone moody heroine and a motley crew of oversexed, leering men to go with the garishly coloured sets awash in neon lighting. If there ever was a runner-up to Mario Bava’s salacious haute couture brand of horror, then Chapman would have been a worthy contender, indeed.

However, with all of the director’s flashy shenanigans comes the pulsating flow of psychological transits, exploring something deeper than Bava’s window-dressing of designer horror. Heart of Midnight piles on the sleaze from the start, but there’s a delicate exchange of emotional complexes taking place between the film’s two magnetic leads, Peter Coyote and Jennifer Jason Leigh, which opens up the story on far deeper levels of dramatic cinema. In fact, Chapman pulls the ingenious trick of turning something so unforgivably sordid into a curious examination of loss.

Carol, a young woman who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, inherits her uncle’s vacant boarding house, which she plans to turn into a swanky nightclub. Against her mother’s wishes, Carol leaves home to take up residence in the empty boarding house where she has hired a group of renovators to carry out plans for the reconstruction.

Carol is an anxious and lonely woman with high hopes and a fragile mind, and it isn’t long before the various workers begin to grate on her nerves. It seems her employees have issues with taking orders from a woman, and Carol must simply contend with the rampant chauvinism until she can figure out a way to handle it.

One night when she is undressing in front an open bedroom window, Carol notices some of the workers watching her from the street. When the workers take their employer’s unwitting display of flesh as an invite, a nightmarish rape sequence follows in which Carol is mauled, chased and terrorized by the lusting men. After the frightening ordeal and a police investigation, Carol works hard to maintain a level of normalcy, if only to prove her disparaging mother wrong. She may have a good chance at managing, with the help of a supportive counsellor who has come to her aid following the sexual assault.

However, Carol has not yet met the mysterious occupant living in her boarding house – the one who’s hiding inside the walls.

Vampishly smug and broodingly perverse, Heart of Midnight explores everything from childhood sexual trauma, post’70s feminism, and Euro-trash horror in the slow-burning fashion of a well-worn Hollywood spellbinder. The frame of the story hinges upon Hitchcockian aesthetics, but Chapman (who also wrote the script) brings to the story an element of kitschy pop-art eroticism. Forgoing the shock of predictable, crude thrills, Chapman pushes for the uncomfortable shifts of sexual danger, plumbing the depths of psychological trauma to weave the threads of a hallucinatory mystery.

Leigh, for the most part, is working from an individual point of expression and not merely reacting to the surrounding drama; we are offered a deeply moody performance that reveals all the sated emotion and quirks that the actress is known for. Coyote, known for his understated and slightly off-kilter roles, seduces with a performance that bleeds with an equal amount of menace and placation. Together, both actors widen the margins of Chapman’s sometimes insurmountably absurd script to bring about real tension in the story.

Kino Lorber’s transfer of the film is nicely rendered; the print has been handsomely restored (save for some slight softness in certain scenes) and is flushed with clean and radiant colours. The deep crimson reds and midnight blues (the film’s two prominent colours) never bleed, and the rest of the other pop-art colours that glow about in the boarding house offer an interesting palette that shows off Chapman’s keen sense of art direction. If there are any gripes, it’s that the audio seems to be a little on the low side throughout the film. It doesn’t help that many of the lines are whispered, but Kino does offers English subtitles if you happen to miss anything.

The release also offers an audio commentary track with the director and actor Coyote. It’s nice that this was included, but from time to time the conversation lags and neither Coyote nor Chapman offers too much insight into the making of the film.

It should also be noted that this release is the cut American version, which removes some of the backstory with Carol and her mother. While the story itself in this shorter version is not harmed much by the removal of those scenes, it doesn’t reveal the full developmental arc of Leigh’s character, which would have allowed viewers a stronger sympathy with her.

Heart of Midnight’s point of interest is that it carries with it fey traces of atmospheres that could have only been conjured by the try-anything approach of the ‘80s, while transmitting ideas that were prescient for its time. There are plenty of films today that deal with issues of childhood abuse, but the performances in this film reveal a knowing sense of hardship amidst the lavishly wild theatrics.

Even as the story threatens to go off the rails, Leigh holds the emotion in place with charisma, tenderness and compassion.  When her character’s mysterious lodger is finally revealed (after a series of bizarre scare tactics), there’s an oddly heartbreaking resolution that comes to usurp the kind of sensational endings these thrillers usually have. Indeed, Leigh manifests her character’s psyche into the film’s closing argument of betrayal and childhood trauma, accomplishing the especially tricky task of faithfully humanizing her character in an even trickier script that demands an exhausting stretch of believability. 

Heart of Midnight

Rating:

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