THE NIGHT BEFORE
Firstly, I’d just like to start off by saying thank you to Circus Wheel Productions and Writer/Director, Brett Bentman (Apocalypse Road) for allowing me early access to an online screener of his latest film “The Night Before”. The Night Before is a Horror/Thriller that follows mother, Kristina (played by Rachel G. Whittle) and her daughter, Penny (Kimi Acosta) on the eve of Halloween. With an escaped mental patient on the loose, the authorities request that the townspeople do their trick or treating a day early. Come the end of the night, Kristina and her young daughter find themselves being held captive by a psychotic man in a gas mask (played by Tom Zembrod). The film also stars Steven Michael Quezada (from TV’s Breaking Bad), Eric Hanson, Tiffany McEvers and Drew Farmer. I recently reviewed Bentman’s wonderful post apocalyptic drama, “Apocalypse Road” *see review* https://adamthemoviegod.com/apocalypse-road-review/. It’s refreshing to find independent film makers who aren’t necessarily tied to any one genre and Brett is one of those, with two of his upcoming films being grounded in Western and Sci-fi.
I found The Night Before had a few things working in its favor right from the get go. The poster art, at least in relation to the mask, looks similar to the classic 70’s Romero film “The Crazies” with a bit of Scott Schirmer’s, “Found” thrown in for good measure, it looks nice. The selling point for genre fans is the combination of a Halloween holiday setting and the films home invasion scenario. One of the unique specifics in The Night Before is Brett’s approach to flipping the rules within the foundation on their head. Once again, the audio track is crisp and clear as is all the foley. Due to a majority of the film taking place at night, there’s more creativity involved with the lighting style. The internal shots are plainly lit but there’s plenty of color radiating off the front of the house and near the barn. Michael Ray Lewis acts as DP on The Night Before (director of photography), and much like in AR, does a superb job with the cinematography. I’m a sucker for these particular locations and this is just one of many examples of small town USA, (somewhere in Texas to be more accurate). It lends itself perfectly to the genuine cinematic feel which is impressive given the film’s budget. There’s a number of gorgeous aerial shots showcasing the town, its healthy nature strips and the impressive housing. Each of Lewis and Bentman’s shots are expertly framed and there’s some really great dolly/tracking shots throughout the course of the film, most notably during a sequence in a bar with Kristina and her soon to be ex, Michael (Hanson). The opening musical theme helps set the ominous mood early. A “Final Destination” like orchestral score, mixed with piano plays through the introduction, and then much like Bentman’s previous film, the bass kicks in as the situation magnifies.
With a quick run time of just 78 minutes, The Night Before doesn’t get bogged down in too much of its own exposition and that’s one of its key strengths. The audience is immediately introduced to a man shortly revealed to be Jasper. Following that, Detective Perez (Quezada) tells a family of locals about the recent escape of the tormented and abused man, warning them to stay on guard. For most of the movie that’s all we’ve got to go on in regard to the mask wearing stranger, though I love the way Brett presents said scene with Perez and the local family. Shots of the detective in the house describing Jasper are intercut with voice over and frames of what appears to be a man navigating an area nearby. Much like in Bentman’s, Apocalypse Road the casting here is really good as well, especially with the mother and daughter pairing of Whittle and Acosta. It definitely doesn’t hurt that the two look the part, but that being said, they’re still able to gauge that natural chemistry with one another which isn’t always easy to do. Kudos have to go to Brett for getting Steven Quezada on board, whose Steve Gomez from “Breaking Bad” will probably forever be etched in our minds. He’s a natural in front of the camera and does his thing yet again, as a cop none the less (haha). Tom Zembrod, the Bill Moseley look-a-like of all look-a-likes if there ever was one, plays the antagonist of the film and turns in another decent and consistent performance. McEvers and Hanson round out the cast with serviceable secondary roles. There are some brief practical effects on display but this one plays as much more of a suspense/thriller.
The first thing that stood out to me and probably will to horror fans alike, is the inclusion of the token gas mask (hazmat mask, whatever you want to call it). You might draw comparisons to those previously mentioned films, or perhaps something different altogether, either way it’s been done. Now let’s not act like The Night Before is the only genre film guilty of this, I critiqued “HazMat”, “Scrape”, “Found” and a number of other independent films in the same manner due to that exact identifiable specific. Personally, it doesn’t really bother me, nor does it curb my overall judgement of the film, it just has to be acknowledged is all. My other issue surrounding the mask is the noise it makes. Even taking into account Jasper’s back story, his breathing through the tube sounds like purring from a cat, only further enhanced, and it gets rather tedious over the course of the whole film. I thought the performances from the husband and wife that Perez visits in the beginning were rather flat, fortunately they don’t play any significant part in proceedings. The Night Before definitely plays as a slow-burner in terms of action based escalation and that’s something I wasn’t expecting. It’s really without warning that Jasper appears (think Shyamalan’s, “Split”) but in this case it has little to no impact, whether that be from a shock and suspense point of view or simply just the missing lead in. I’m glad that Quezada was in this film but I can’t help feeling like he was just shoehorned in. I say that because he only visits the one family in what is seemingly a decent sized town (bit of a stretch). There’s also no scenes that take place in or around the facility that’s mentioned, hell, even questioning of the staff would have been a welcomed inclusion. There was a lot more room to move here and unfortunately it wasn’t taken full advantage of.
In my opinion The Night Before falls down somewhat because of its marketing and I’m afraid audiences may be a little misled. There’s actually very little horror in the film, it’s much more a suspense/thriller than it is anything else and that’s where I think it comes unstuck. If you’re approaching the material with tension in mind and not gore, then it’s got to be good, and unfortunately, while there’s glimpses of suspense, overall the intensity dips too often throughout the film to really elevate it in its fitting genre. The way in which Jasper first surprises Kristina and her daughter is evidence of that, it didn’t go the way I was hoping. Brett appears to set the scene nicely, placing the antagonist in an interesting pose but then when it comes to delivery it falls flat, I think the timing may have effected it. I admit that I was a little blindsided by the trailer and such, so my complaints with the lack of kills and on-screen gore is just purely personal preference and probably not completely justified now I know Bentman’s intent behind the film. For what was ultimately a short film, a sizeable chunk of screen time felt wasted on the inner workings of Jasper’s mind, where instead, Brett could have opted for a substantial flashback or two to clarify some things, and maybe even added additional action in terms of the body count. There’s a lengthy scene toward the end of the film where Jasper starts hearing voices, ultimately leading him to the barn/shed to mess around or fix his “monkey rig” (for lack of a better word). Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like, a gimmick monkey that laughs and swivels, similar to that of the “jigsaw” doll from the “Saw” franchise but not scary. I still don’t know the purpose that those scenes served, it may have just been an extension of the man’s obsession with toys, I honestly don’t know but it took me out of the film. What I do know is that there was potential to cover quite a lot more here, maybe in the end it was just Bentman’s decision to keep things confined, and that’s his right.
After seeing Bentman’s previous film Apocalypse Road I was really looking forward to The Night Before and his first foray into the Horror/Thriller genre. There’s some things to like here, initially the poster and premise peaked my interest and the chance to see and review a film with Quezada in it didn’t hurt. The small town America approach really appeals to me, not to mention all the technical aspects are well conceived again as Brett continues to hone his craft. It’s got sharp audio, good lighting and some stylistic shot choices and cinematography, most notably those establishing shots of the small Texas town. I like some of the scripts specifics, namely the way Brett flips the usual home invasion revelations on their side. The casting and performances are probably the standouts and some of the cat and mouse chasing plays out entertainingly. Although the use of a mask doesn’t bother me, the sound chosen to match the breathing got a little tiresome and the setup regarding how Kristina and Penny even got to the house stretches the plausibility somewhat given the size of the town. The films slow burn nature and lack of action hurts it, especially when the tension levels constantly waver and on occasion don’t even hit at all. A lot of screen time was sucked up by Jasper’s mundane activities, where a successful substitute may have been some additional scenes that correlate to his foundation, particularly if there’s no killing. There’s still some entertainment to be had for fans who enjoy the blending of genres. I still had fun with this one, though I don’t know how it will fare with the re-watch ability factor. I’ll say just don’t go in expecting a bloodbath because you’ll be caught off guard. The Night Before is coming soon so keep an eye out if you’re interested!
My rating for “The Night Before” is 5.5/10