During the last two years, isolation and its many horrors have haunted everyone. Naturally, genre filmmakers are best equipped to see the creative potential in pandemic fears — and its limitations. In her latest feature, prolific horror auteur Jennifer Reeder makes mighty use of both, crafting an inventive ghost story for the video call era. Arriving at a dramatically zany conclusion, “Night’s End” follows the unraveling of an aimless divorcé through his misguided attempts at establishing a YouTube presence. Taking place entirely within the confines of his dreary bachelor pad, “Night’s End” unfolds at a brisk but suspenseful pace, delivering smart thrills within its crafty limitations. Though the film falters under the confines of a small budget and COVID-safe crews, thanks to Reeder’s ingenuity and love of classic horror, she strong arms it over the finish line to an enjoyably wacky finale.
Affable everyman Geno Walker provides a neutral canvas as Ken Barber, a single dad whose drinking led to the dissolution of his marriage. The movie opens with Ken trying out different online personas, which goes a lot like you’d imagine an unemployed Gen X-er trying to become a YouTuber to go. “Thank you for taking the time to watch Ken Barber’s management tips,” he tells his invisible audience of 11 viewers, hiding the meager surroundings that would reveal his questionable authority on the matter.
With little to explore visually inside his disheveled bachelor pad, Reeder finds a rhythm in the cycle of mundane routines that came to define our pandemic lives. She repeats the nearly identical close-up of Ken pouring coffee into a glass mug, the milk running a sickly Pepto-pink under the eerie red light of his rental kitchen. As the primary set piece, the details of Ken’s apartment attract a microscopic focus — the transparent plastic sheet standing in for a door, the inversion table he swings from daily, a green wall of photos and taxidermy birds. The suffocation of walls closing in around him is an appropriate marker of Ken’s isolation, but it doesn’t do a lot to keep the viewer interested.
Luckily, Reeder counteracts the stagnant tone poem so popular in genre these days with energetic supporting characters. Terry (Felnius Munk) does some heavy lifting as Ken’s YouTube coach and concerned best friend, injecting some much-needed levity and skepticism. It’s Terry who first notices the stuffed bird inexplicably falling off the shelf behind Ken’s head, and eggs him on in his suspicions that his new house may be haunted.
Along with Ken’s ex-wife (Kate Arrington) and her new husband (Michael Shannon having the time of his life in a cameo role), Terry is a devoted fan of Dark Corners, a YouTuber who posts ghost stories and livestreams to his highly popular channel. If Ken can get his story featured on Dark Corners, his friends and family assure him, it could be the key to the viral fame he seeks. Ken’s research leads him to seek out author and paranormal expert Colin Albertson (Lawrence Grimm), a goateed creep with a suspicious British accent. When Ken leaves the room during one of their video calls, Colin performs a surreptitious incantation that sends a shockwave throughout the house.
“Night’s End” makes the most of the video chat format, though it often feels like Reeder is fighting two sides of her filmmaking sensibilities. The film’s eerie score and lingering shots of doorways and blurry figures give way to comedic interludes of Shannon shouting over his wife and Terry’s expository reactions. The video image flickers on and off in an overused effect; is it meant to signal a shift in the astral plane or an interruption to wifi or both? She introduces two new characters for the film’s group call conclusion, which is edited well but takes a lot of set-up for relatively little payoff.
Still, this is genre filmmaking at its scrappiest and with the right sensibility. In the last few years, highbrow horror has nudged out smaller, more tongue-in-cheek fare as the genre du jour, to the detriment of one of cinema’s most tried and true formats. With a little sleight of hand and a well-executed metaphor, horror can encompass both the fun and the artifice of filmmaking. “Night’s End” may not be perfect, but it’s perfectly flawed.
“Night’s End” is currently streaming on Shudder.