Jennifer Reeder’s bonafides as a horror director — particularly one attuned to the terrifying travails of the female teenage experience, a la her breakout “Knives and Skin” — are unimpeachable, but she’s never been eager to do the same thing twice. When it came time to tackle her next feature film, Reeder was searching for something new, and a little scary: putting her own stamp on a story about not just a man, but the kind of man too often unable to express his own fears.
In the Shudder-produced “Night’s End,” written by Brett Neveu, Reeder found exactly what she was looking for, a fresh injection of perspective and theme that the genre needs now.
“I had been looking for a script with an adult male as a lead, partially because I had an idea of what I could do through a kind of feminist lens with a particular kind of male lead,” Reeder said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Especially during the pandemic year, I read a lot of scripts, a lot of scripts were submitted to me, and it was a [lot of] coming-of-age, surreal noir. And I thought, ‘Of course, you send that to me, but unless it’s better than what I can write, I’m not going to do it.'”
(Reeder was quick to note two things: 1) she knows saying that sort of thing is “bold,” but it’s really how she feels, and 2) for anyone afraid she’s moved away from those sorts of features, she’s literally prepping a film based on those those same themes right now, a “coming-of-age shapeshifter” story with a teenage girl at its center, also produced by Shudder.)
When Neveu, an accomplished playwright who teaches at Northwestern, sent Reeder his script, it clicked. The chamber piece, initially just dialogue, offered Reeder the chance to put her own stamp on the project, bolstered by the kind of male lead she had been looking for. The film follows Ken Barber (Geno Walker), a shut-in who soon finds himself haunted by a nefarious spirit who seems all too eager to bust loose of both Ken and his creepy apartment. Ken’s scared a lot, and he has every right to be.
“The Ken Barber in the script that I got, his race or ethnicity was not identified,” Reeder said, though she soon hit on the idea of casting the sort of hero not always centered in horror films: a Black man. For the director, it was “a way to think about the parallels in real life. There are people who get to be afraid and there are people who get to be anxious, and then there are people who are feared and who don’t get to be thought of as vulnerable, or get to be thought of as prey when, in fact, that’s exactly what this world is for certain people.”
Reeder cast local Chicago actor Walker — “he’s literally six-foot-three, takes up the whole doorframe, super handsome guy, a picture of success and masculinity” — to take on the complicated role of Ken, one that comes with a major emotional edge. “I really wanted to be able to look at him through a lens of not just sympathy, but empathy,” she said. “We made an effort to light him with pastel pinks and blues, which is something that I’ve done in my other films, too, but it’s different when you cast that light on an adolescent girl, and then you cast it on an adult man and talk about the kind of male softness.”
When we first meet Ken, he’s already in peril. He’s divorced, recently decamped to a new town away from his friends (like best friend Terry, played by Felonious Munk) and family (including his ex-wife Kelsey and her new husband Isaac — played by real-life couple Kate Arrington and Michael Shannon — with whom Ken is still close), without a job, and unwilling to leave his drafty apartment. He busies himself with various tasks, like recording video podcasts on a number of topics, building out his taxidermic bird collection, caring for a room full of lush orchids, and occasionally hopping on Zoom to chat with his loved ones. His diet is basic: coffee and Pepto Bismol in the morning, label-less tomato soup throughout the day.
We soon learn that Ken was not always a shut-in, but that certain events in his life have pushed him into an isolated, unsafe space. His stop-and-start podcasts help a lot — Reeder was intent on not leaning on bad narrative tropes to give us key Ken info, like making the poor guy talk to himself nonstop (“not realistic”) — and so does his steadily crumbling routine. The internet both connects him and makes him feel uneasy, and Reeder steeped herself in scary YouTube videos, especially the channel Nuke’s Top 5, to better imagine what kind of weird stuff Ken might eventually find.
It’s creepy enough, tense and unnerving, and that’s before Ken accidentally connects with a spirit who has only bad intentions. As Ken’s life becomes even more fraught, whatever he’s unleashed presses closer and closer on him. What’s scarier than a haunted house? A haunted house you literally can’t escape.
“As a consumer of certain stories, I do like those stories where it goes from bad to worse,” Reeder said with a laugh. “[I like] a reverse arc, where someone ends in a much worse place than where they began.” (No spoilers here, though Reeder thinks some viewers could take the conclusion of “Night’s End” to be a happy one, and she said she drew from everything from Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation” to “classic John Carpenter” to make it feel like “vintage horror” with a twist.)
Like many creators, Reeder was itching to make something during lockdown. When Neveu sent her the script for “Night’s End,” it seemed like a perfect fit: a single-location haunted house story in which the main character mostly communicates with others through, of course, video chat. She took the script to the team at Shudder — the horror streamer also released the latest entry in the popular “V/H/S” anthology series, “V/H/S/94,” to which Reeder contributed a short — and they bit immediately.
Soon, Reeder had also lined up producer Neal Edelstein, best known for his work on everything from “Mulholland Drive” to the American version of “The Ring,” which empowered her to ask for even more. OK, a little more.
Rest assured, “Night’s End” was indeed made on an indie budget and with a DIY mindset, with Reeder and her cast and crew making it over just 13 days in July 2021 in (sweltering) Chicago. But they didn’t shoot on phones on the weekend or over Zoom, instead opting to use the real apartment that stands in for Ken’s haunted place as the setting for every single shot and production office.
Arrington and Shannon aren’t in another apartment somewhere, they’re in Ken’s apartment, just in a totally retrofitted space. Some days, the room where Ken tends to his orchids was actually homebase for hair and makeup (they’d decamp for the kitchen when Reeder and Walker were shooting orchid-centric scenes). Reeder was mindful of keeping a skeleton crew and only bringing in actors one by one (save for Arrington and Shannon, who are the only performers who ever share a frame).
It was a challenge for everyone, not just logistically but emotionally. The actors couldn’t act with each other, even on the phone or over Zoom. It was, in many ways, a scary and solitary endeavor. Perfect.
“Geno was only ever acting to Terrence [Thompson], our script supervisor,” Reeder explained. “When we brought in Felonious to be Terry, we built out his Zoom background, and then he was acting only to Terrence. It’s a testament to these actors that there’s chemistry. We feel the chemistry between Ken and Terry. We feel Ken’s own connection with everybody, but that was all about those brilliant actors being able to perform to Terrence, who is not an actor, who was simply just reading lines to them.”
And while the “COVID of it all” is baked into the film, from a production standpoint to its thematic resonance, Reeder hopes “Night’s End” can stand on its own, a singular examination of fear, vulnerability, and what it means to be at the center of your own story.
“It was obviously made during COVID, but I also want this to feel, in five or 10 years, that it is this isolation chamber piece and not a quarantine piece, because that’s certainly not what it is,” Reeder said. She was compelled by the idea of examining alone time, a concept that grew even more front-of-mind during lockdown. “Even prior to that, people would talk about a need for self-care and alone time,” she said, “but at what point does alone time go from being really emotionally fruitful to being really damaging?”
“Night’s End” will start streaming on Shudder on Thursday, March 31.