It is a dark and stormy night, and right from the get-go, Erik Bloomquist’s Ten Minutes To Midnight is clearly going to be a genre film. First, there is the fact that it opens with the arrival of Caroline Williams, whose breakout rôle was playing the DJ Vanita ‘Stretch’ Brock in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), and who is once more, some 34 years later, playing another straight-talking radio disc jockey, Amy Marlowe. And second, when she is greeted at the station by the building’s eccentric security guard Ernie (the late Nicholas Tucci) who is seen casually whittling a piece of wood into a stake, she has two bleeding marks on her neck, having been bitten by a flying creature of the night – all good signs that this is going to be a vampire movie.
Well it is and it isn’t. For over this long, dark night of the soul, as Amy realises, moments before she starts her live show, that her boss and sometime lover of 30 years Bob (William Youmans) is about to replace her with the young Berkeley graduate Sienna Walker (Nicole Kang), the vampire mythos and imagery that dominate the film become a multivalent metaphor for the monstrousness of ageing, for the bloodsucking nature of a patriarchy that feeds on – and spits out – one female victim after another, and for the ultimate inescapability of death and the tyranny of time itself.
Time is enshrined in the film’s very title, which is both the name of Amy’s all-night show, and an indication of when it starts. In a sort-of flashback, as a much younger Bob (Greg Balla) points out that most DJs prefer to start their programme on the hour, Amy says that she likes that moment of ‘transition’, as a new time approaches. She is in one of those moments of transition herself, facing involuntary retirement from the career that has defined her adult life, with the clock ticking on her inevitable decline and death. The film is entirely about that moment, a cross-section of time that encodes all at once her past, present and future. With a hurricane and solar flares raging outside, Amy becomes trapped as much in her tempestuous memories and nightmarish anxieties as in the building’s ‘full lockdown procedure’, hallucinating her way through an evening that is also an eternity, with all the studio’s time-pieces seemingly frozen on 11.50.
So while Bloomquist’s film certainly comes with all the bloodletting and bestial transformations, the fangs and bats and coffins, typical of a vampire flick, at the same time its disorienting leaps in chronology, its oneiric ruptures of reality, the bizarre rôle-swapping and interchangeable identities of its characters, and its melancholic fixation on fatalism, might leave viewers thinking more of Charlie Kaufman than Tod Browning.
“It was always going to end this way,” Amy tells Bob. “I think I’m going to die tonight,” she says live on air, adding, “It’s a strange thing, your last day.” “The end’s always coming, Amy”, says the engineer Aaron (played mostly by Adam Weppler, if not in this scene), “Can’t outrun it, because we’re always moving towards it.” Everything here comes with an eschatological edge and an apocalyptic ‘sense of an ending’, as Amy, knowing that she is on her way out, at least gets one hell of a swan song, as well as revenge (whether real, imaginary, or allegorical).
Ten Minutes To Midnight seems destined to be embraced by the horror crowd, but it is a difficult film to pin down – all at once cynical yet sentimental, nostalgic yet nihilistic, genre-driven yet wildly experimental. There must be a mood of mortality in the 2020 air – for Bloomquist’s film sits comfortably alongside Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow and Natalie Erika James’ Relic as a female-focused memento mori dripping with existential dread.
strap: Erik Bloomquist’s Ten Minutes To Midnight plays out its vampire tropes to explore more existential concerns with a DJ’s ageing and mortality.
© Anton Bitel