It will be interesting to see if, in a decade or so, there will have been established a very specific, very limited subgenre of film known as “COVID cinema.” These are not movies about COVID-19, mind you, but rather movies shot in and around the COVID shutdown of 2020-21 whose plots seem tailored to meet the physical and economic constraints of the time. Night’s End, shot in Chicago in the summer of 2021, is a prime example. Conceived and filmed during the height of the pandemic, it’s one of those online-centric, protagonist-starting-at-a-computer-screen horror movies, like Host and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (though the latter was actually filmed right before the pandemic), that grew in popularity — and in necessity — during the COVID-19 lockdown. Despite the talent involved, however, Night’s End wasn’t as critically acclaimed as those two films, a victim of mundane thrills, cheesy effects and jarring shifts in tone.
The single-setting film stars Geno Walker as Ken, an agoraphobic shut-in and amateur taxidermist who, for some unspecified reason, had a nervous breakdown a couple of years ago. He’s since lost both his job and his (white) wife, Kelsey (Kate Arrington), and has moved to a new town, where he lives like an ambitionless serial killer: in a darkened apartment with newspapers plastered over the windows, clear plastic curtains straight out of Dexter’s kill room and a freezer full of dead birds. The movie takes pains to show him taking one day at a time, with a daily routine that includes sessions on an inversion table, a Pepto-Bismol-and-coffee cocktail, tending to his birds and recording a video blog about lawn care — which, coming from a man who lives in an apartment, you’d have to approach with a fair level of skepticism.
When mysterious incidents begin happening in his new home — objects moving, strange noises, shadowy figures, the usual horror movie rigmarole — Ken suspects it’s haunted and switches his video blog from grass to ghosts. Research leads him to discover that a woman died in his apartment in 1915, and he enlists the aid of pompous paranormal expert Colin Albertson (Lawrence Grimm), who assists him in the use of a “spirit jar” that can capture ghosts — like an artisanal Ghostbusters trap. Predictably, Ken ends up biting off more than he can chew, and things get…messy.
The plot of Night’s End makes perfect sense for a pandemic-era film. Those who lived alone during lockdown can no doubt relate to long, lonely, quiet stretches of time that can test your sanity, when a simple bump in the night can send your mind racing about what sort of homicidal maniac is lying in wait under your futon. Unfortunately, the movie taps into this fear only sporadically. It wrings what it can from the audience-sees-something-in-the-background-that-the-protagonist-doesn’t-see scare, but it awkwardly wedges in attempts at humor, with goofy, broad characters like Colin, paranormal TV host “Dark Corners” (Daniel Kyri) and Kelsey’s new husband, Isaac (Michael Shannon), plus a climax that literally explodes with budget effects-laden camp.
Presumably it’s intentional, as you wouldn’t expect an actor as accomplished as Shannon to give such a hammy performance unless it was intentional. The same can be said for director Jennifer Reeder, whose thriller Knives and Skin received critical acclaim in 2019. Night’s End, on the other hand, feels like a throwaway project they slapped together to pass the time. While it’s an easy enough watch — and it’s nice to see a black lead — there’s very little to it, like a 30-minute Twilight Zone episode stretched beyond its limit. It’s what you’d expect a pandemic-spawned film to feel like: cheap, amateurish and half baked, with dialogue from an improv class exercise and a story that devolves into generic mayhem…so, the cinematic equivalent of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.