[This review may contain spoilers]
Ignoring the final twenty minutes, Night’s End delivers an hour of solid frights. I suggest ignorance because the closing scenes may as well have been glued on from a separate, entirely awful picture. It loses the plot right about when it poses the Night’s Endquestion: what if Jordan Peterson was a paranormal researcher? Never a positive association.
Ken Barber (Geno Walker), an anxious shut-in, spends his days making videos for the internet and tending to his flowers and stuffed birds. His routine is economically charted through simple, recurring images. He covers the windows of his apartment, casting himself into persistent darkness. He eats tomato soup from plain cans with homemade labels to the solemn refrain of a count down. The purpose of this counting is suggested most clearly when he mixes his coffee with Pepto Bismol (again from a plain container). One of the more imaginative visual motifs is how the ratio of coffee to Pepto changes through the action of the story. There’s an ambiguity to these scenes, particularly in relation to why Ken has locked himself away. Initially, his only verbal interactions are with his webcam. These are pathetic, in that specific way perfected by life on the internet. The title of one, “Ken Barber’s Divorced Dad Tips,” shines a narrow light on his life.
Ken’s small world eventually grows enough to encompass video calls with his ex-wife Kelsey (Kate Arrington) and best friend Terry (Felonious Munk). Michael Shannon also appears as Kelsey’s husband Isaac, a superfluous role worth mentioning only because Michael Shannon is always stellar. The performances here are all solid, the writing strong enough to impart what little information we need about Ken. These calls find their narrative and visual rhymes, such as when Ken slumps on the kitchen floor surrounded by beer bottles. Little new ground is covered, but there’s pleasure in watching a simple story elegantly told.
In the background of a video (“Ken Barber’s Lawn Life”), a stuffed bird falls from a shelf. Undoubtedly odd and seemingly without reason, those close to Ken immediately plant a single idea: the apartment is haunted. They leap directly to this conclusion, in part given their fascination with the scary videos on a channel run by Dark Corners (Daniel Kyri). No quicker way to solve your financial problems than to pull in that viral ad revenue. Possible solutions to this ghost problem are found on the internet. Where else?
The proceedings generate two solid jump scares and plenty of atmosphere. Shadowy figures linger on the corner of frames, while footsteps creep but never arrive. A cursory internet search reveals that there was, in fact, a violent crime committed in the apartment. There’s a sense that Ken is simply the victim of his isolation and the easy manipulation of otherwise well-meaning acquaintances, to say nothing of his over-reliance on the internet. As happens in these stories, those acquaintances will eventually come to doubt the veracity of the haunting they suggested (before dropping those doubts when the story needs to play out). The film is too shallow to give the spectator a chance to doubt, but those versed in the genre can let their minds wander.
If this was all Night’s End had to offer, it would be an adequate haunted house story. A careful checklist is drawn up and the filmmakers tick the boxes as they move along. The seeds of their demise are planted with the introduction of author and paranormal researcher Colin Albertson (Lawrence Grimm). Bearing a pencil-thin goatee, his appearance is something you might draw if you asked a feverish suburban mother to describe Anton LaVey. Colin, it’s clear, has his own agenda. What this is will not even be hinted at until it’s happening, which reinforces the idea that the ending originates from an entirely different, much worse project. His dastardly plan, which ends the film, is teeth-grindingly stupid. You would be right to stop watching at about the hour mark, satisfied with having enjoyed a solid low-budget horror.
But I do want to linger on Colin Albertson. His first appearance is innocuous, though he cuts a ridiculous figure. When he video calls Ken, he sits in front of a mantle of candles and other vaguely occult accoutrements. These are obvious signifiers, suggesting that the author is, in fact, a farce. The ease with which he speaks the words “spirit jar” further prove this point. When he later suggests that Ken first clean up “his world” before worrying about the bigger problems, I crept onto the edge of my seat in anticipation of a comment about lobsters or post-modern neo-Marxists.
Yes, the hack self-help guru turns out to be a bad guy. Go figure. This is, I suspect unintentionally, amusing. The eventual reveal is rushed, in part because it is so poorly foreshadowed. The pay-off simply does not follow from the set-up. This is frustrating because the set-up was enjoyable. In pulling the rug out from under the spectator, director Jennifer Reeder and writer/producer Brett Neveu forgot there was nothing underneath. My own cursory internet search shows this is Neveu’s first credit for anything since 2007. Night’s End is worth an hour of your life. The remaining runtime is either ignored or endured.