It is well past midnight right now, as I’m writing this post. I have a lot to think about, but I’m not in New Orleans, and this isn’t about Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting” or “The Vampire Song”: both fitting enough titles in and of themselves. Instead, I found myself this weekend — tired and emotionally raw — watching Erik C. Bloomquist’s Ten Minutes to Midnight.
I had this friend, once, that I used to talk with all the time: right about now into the wee hours of the morning, and beyond that. She used to say, with regards to her friends, our loved ones, and to us that we are voices in the darkness. She told me that I was a voice in the darkness: someone to speak with when everything seemed painful, terrifying, and hopeless. For thirty years at the small-town WLST radio station in which she’s been a radio disc jockey, Amy Marlowe, played by the beautiful veteran actress Caroline Williams, has been that voice: that person who took questions live on the air, and made connections with people.
Or at least, she tried.
I’ll admit that I almost misled myself coming into this film. Kreepazoid Kelly sent me a link to a Live Tweeting and Watch Party of the movie, and I fully intended on attending it but I missed the event. Luckily, I found the film and watched it. And, really, it couldn’t have come at a better time in this horror student’s opinion.
And I didn’t go to Berkley, unlike the character of Sienna whom Amy’s predatory boss, Bob, has hired to pretty much phase her out and replace her, though I suspect no one particularly just how much a “rabid bat bite” would change everything going in. That’s right. I read a description, before watching the movie, that Amy gets bitten by a rabies-infected bat, and she transforms into something. It seemed so ridiculous, and arbitrary. Even comical.
This impression didn’t last long as Amy comes in, from the storm, her neck injured pretty badly, but grimly determined to continue the job she earned years ago: to try to make a difference. But she’s tired, and cranky, and underneath all of that you can see that she’s scared: that she doesn’t really know why she’s doing this anymore, or why she’s going through the motions, or how it really all came to this.
I reviewed another vampire film, Bliss, before this movie. But unlike Bliss, where the vampire is part of the extended metaphor but almost incidental to the true beast of that narrative, the symbol of the vampire is front and centre with an almost Cabinet of Dr. Caligari surrealism, minus the non-Euclidean Expressionist geometry going nowhere. Inside, it is reality that doesn’t make sense anymore, with characters saying things that could be attributed to them complete with hallucinations and snippets of time out of space, or thoughts made visually manifest, and it’s Amy’s life that seems to be going nowhere.
The vampire, in this film, is Amy. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is is a part of her that is still holding onto her past — her humanity — but it is quickly becoming distant. There are so many vampire references in this film to the point of punsmanship. The security guard Ernie seems to keep sharpening a stake through woodworking. Aaron, Amy’s technical assistant and friend who idealizes her, gives her a red lollipop. And after she attacks, and seems to bite Sienna out of rage, she is in the washroom sucking on a used tampon: as though attempting to hold onto the youth she wasted in this establishment, the thinnest thread to her humanity, to the ideal of femininity and feminine beauty in a male-dominated establishment that drained her and spit her out, and also something defiant against that very thing that wants her to act all prim and proper against one final humiliation.
It isn’t so much the bite that changes Amy, I feel. It’s the slow realization, or the thought — as the details around her are dependent on her deteriorating perception — that everyone, and everything has betrayed her. Bob, who did not age well in thirty years from when he was a slick handsome man impressing a much younger Amy to a balding, grinning slimy ghoul more than a vampire, constantly has female interns in, and one more. Aaron doesn’t tell her about the fact that his high school friend Sienna is replacing her by Bob’s order. Sienna herself, seemingly innocent, knows or thinks she knows the game, and insults the woman she is supposed to replace.
Amy’s reality untethers, and we come along with her on the ride. We don’t know what’s real anymore, and what is in her head. It’s like experiencing a vampire’s perspective from Clan Malkavian — a bloodline of seers and madness from White Wolf’s World of Darkness — in that some events are even out of sequence. But the images are clear. The gaslighting is real as her coworkers seem to ignore, or not see her pain in her forced retirement, and Bob tries to make her think that her attack is all her fault, as Sienna calls her “crazy.” And you see a glimpse of the young woman Amy used to be, idealistic and vivid and kind, as Bob seduces her with his power position, and then uses her: and this is before we even see Amy looking physically younger, and it’s only towards the end that there is one moment of that: and then it’s gone.
I think there are a few images that stand out at me. The juxtaposition of the different characters in different roles shows Amy’s human mind degrading, with both hopes of what could have been, and resentment. Ernie sharpening the stake every time she sees him, is something of an inevitability. Even going off to see the sunrise has the connotation of going off into the sunset, but for a vampire we all know what means. Amy starts to see Sienna as the vampire monster usurping her, after she bites her: this creature that is both disfigured — and yet not on the surface ugly — who even in one iteration of the cinematic narrative wounds Bob: her new boss that she claims she can move on from to pursue greater dreams. This twisted Sienna probably never existed, but represents the deformed version of the ideal young and pretty, and internalized misogynist woman that Amy despises because of Sienna herself, but also because she can still see that in herself. And when she kills Sienna, she is really destroying the part of herself that at the time she thinks is separate from her, as she embraces the blood-splattered beautiful beast that she once feared, that she tried to suppress, the anger she tried to control, but has now become.
But the red phone scene, more than the ominous “For she’s a jolly good fellow” celebration at the end with the coffin, is the most heartbreaking. We see Amy lose her cool, completely, as Sienna is supposed to sit in to learn the ropes, and she uses the show she once loved to attack both the callers, and Sienna, and the radio station she’s worked at for ages. Yet the red phone — there is always red in this movie — stands out to me because I believe the voice on the other line thanking Amy for being there for her for so many years, and wanting to be her is, in fact, Amy. It’s Amy’s voice in the darkness that she’s always wanted. It’s what she was to other people. It’s what she perverted towards the end out of bitterness for what was done to her.
It is, really, the last of Amy’s humanity thanking her for being her.
I think it’s pretty safe to say I sympathized with Amy throughout the entire film. There are other aspects that might not have happened, or occurred the way they did, but it honestly doesn’t even matter. Amy ends the film, more or less, wondering if she actually did touch other people, ten minutes to midnight, three hours before the Hour of the Wolf, but so close to the end of one day and the beginning of another that she has no idea will even occur, or if she will ever see it. She also wonders if anyone is really who they say they are, or seemed to be: including herself.
It is a powerful film to consider, and made stronger because of Caroline Williams’ fierce, distinguished passion as Amy. It could have been a different film entirely. It could have been silly, like the strange descriptive summary I read with a zany vengeance-caper of blood and gore. We could have seen Aaron, who all but worshiped Amy, be the vampire that immortalizes her because he wants to preserve her beauty and keep him with her — doing what she is doing — forever. Hell, Ernie and Bob are nice red herrings — damn red again — because it almost seemed like they purposefully knew what she was, and that Bob turned into a vampire years ago as she “hasn’t seen sunlight in a while” because of the nightshift, and Ernie could easily have been a vampire hunter, or a thug to kill her by Bob after she is done.
We could have easily watched Amy slaughter everyone as a mindless revenant, or infect everybody with a zombie vampirism. But this film stuck to its principles: of a woman who defied misogyny, who had been humiliated by it, who had been seduced, subjected to grossness and disrespect, and whose mind is shaped by the forces of constant stress, gaslighting, and heartbreak but still rages into that good night, leaving a mess rivalling that of the insides of a red velvet food cake that I don’t think she ever got that chance to eat.
Instead, we see her at a party filled with people she thought she knew but never did, with others she’s never seen before, presenting her with presents of frozen time, and a vial of blood, and a coffin. And, as weird as this might sound, I feel like this film is more of a tragedy than a horror movie. Because even as she’s afraid, Amy wonders if anything she did mattered, despite her visceral defiance against the inevitable, she just wants this senseless party to end.
Perhaps sunrise will mark the aftermath of one story and the start of another.