Night’s End begins with the camera on the tree line over a suburban street, before panning and tilting down to a brick house, and tracking in through its front entrance to the staircase beyond and up to a closed door which opens, apparently of its own accord, allowing the camera to enter the apartment within. There is then a montage of empty rooms, impressionistically mapping out the apartment’s interiors – with plastic sheeting hanging from all the doorways, and newspaper pages sealing the windows, to mark this as a place of dysfunction. Meanwhile a male voice is heard counting down from ten to one, and eventually the camera settles on a man lying in bed. This is Ken Barber (Geno Walker), and this opening is also the last time – until the film’s final sequence – that we will be outside the confines of the building. For Ken is a shut-in, unwilling or unable to step out beyond the front door – even if the disembodied movements of that camera suggest a presence that has come from outside to invade his home.
Ken ends his repeated countdowns with the words “Forward progress” – as a kind of encouraging mantra to himself. Yet far from making progress, divorced, unemployed Ken seems stuck in a cycle of ritualised activities. He consumes the same foods and drinks every day, he follows the same exercise routine, he habitually tends his orchids and performs taxidermy on dead birds which he keeps by the freezer-load and prefers to their living equivalent. Yet recently he has, in his way, been breaking this self-imposed isolation by regularly Skyping with his best friend Terry (Felonious Monk), as well as with his ex-wife Kelsey (Kate Arrington) and her excitable new husband Isaac (Michael Shannon) – even if he has been less good at keeping in touch with his own two daughters. Ken has also started recording rambling self-help vlogs (Ken Barber’s Long Life Tips) – and while these get very few hits and seem unlikely to become the revenue-earner that he would like, they are a sign that this agoraphobic loner is at least trying to reach out to the world beyond.
Ken may be more successful at this than he intends. For his hermetic life takes a turn when Terry notices something mildly unusual happening in the background of one his friend’s vlogs, and soon, with encouragement from Terry, Kelsey and Isaac, Ken will, like the protagonist of Graham Hughes’ Death of a Vlogger (2019), start turning his unpopular vlog into a ghost channel to document any supernatural occurrences in the apartment – which it will turn out was the site, over a century earlier, of an attempted axe murder and a suicide (although details surrounding the incident will prove hazy). The more paranormal activity that Ken captures on his webcam, the more viewers he acquires – even if some of the attention that he is attracting will turn out to be unwelcome.
Night’s End is very much post-Host horror – a film whose indoors locations, extensive screenlife footage and multiple characters who communicate remotely from different spaces, all point to a mid-pandemic production. At the same time, the social distancing practised by these characters, climaxing in a special live-streamed ‘cleansing’ rite, serves to accentuate Ken’s extreme isolation, as a man who has closed himself off from the world. This is certainly a ghost story, but like the best of them, comes doubly determined, as the invasion of Ken’s domestic space runs in parallel with his own spiralling descent back into the nervous breakdown and alcoholism which had destroyed his marriage two years earlier. Here if ghosts are conjured from the ether, then so are Ken’s living correspondents. Here spirits come from the bottle as much as from the spirit jar. And here, by the end, it is difficult to tell whether we have witnessed apocalyptic pandemonium on a global scale, or just one lonely man’s mental collapse.
Director Jennifer Reeder (Knives and Skin, 2019) usually – although not always (Signature Move, 2017) – works from her own scripts, but Night’s End is written by Brett Neveu, and feels tonally and thematically very different from Reeder’s past films. Nonetheless, the radical shifts, according to the time of day, in the apartment interiors’ lighting and colour (courtesy of cinematographer Christopher Rejano) feel very much a part of Reeder’s usual stylised cinematic world-building, and ensure that this relatively small single location comes with an always engaging visual beauty.
Later scenes in which a panel of spiritualists and paranormal investigators (Lawrence Grimm, Daniel Kyri, Theo Germaine) moderates, mediates and meddles in the events unfolding at Ken’s apartment, play out in a campily cheesy mode, their virtual presentation (and goofiness) subverting their status as reality. Yet what remains is a vision of mental illness as a kind of locked-in hell which cannot easily be either exorcised or escaped, as concepts like ‘outside’ and ‘the real world’ prove illusory. Here, we are all victims of the ghost in the machine, and the devil in the wires, which we freely invite into our homes via a popular but unchecked and unreliable medium that longs to infiltrate and undermine our internal lives, now lived largely online.
strap: Jennifer Reeder’s agoraphobic, occult tale shows a man as unable to leave his interiors as the ghost (in the machine) that haunts them
© Anton Bitel