Night Shift

Night Shift (2023)

Night Shift opens to the doo-wop soul of Too Late For Tears (1966) by Geronimo and the Apaches. It is quite literally ‘too late’ for a young woman like Gwen Taylor (Phoebe Tonkin) to be driving out all by herself along a dark backroad – but then she has been employed at the last minute to take the solo night shift at ‘the All Tucked Inn’, a tawdry pink-neon oasis out in the middle of nowhere. This is an emergency hire, made at short notice, so that sweetly nervy owner/manager Teddy Miles (Lamorne Morris) can go out on a date, and Gwen has never been here before or met Teddy – but having helped her mother with motel work as a child, she knows the ropes. If she does well tonight, she might even get to stay on at the motel. 

“I know it looks like the damned Addams family used to live here,” Teddy tells, “It actually belonged to my grandfolks, way back when, but we haven’t quite updated it since.” Indeed, the setting of Night Shift may be contemporary, with ‘janky’ wifi and smartphones, but the motel at its centre – much like the song with which it starts – comes with a dated, which is to say timeless, quality. The All Tucked Inn is cheap and dingy, its 20 rooms have seen better days, there are bugs and rats on the premises, a sinkhole appeared last summer and emptied the pool of its water – and the place is also decorated with a mounted bear’s head (that keeps falling loudly from its hook), a creepy doll, and in every room there are also stuffed birds, in an explicit reference to the mother of all motel horror, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Teddy does have plans to modernise the place, if only he can get a loan.

Hitchcock’s ur-slasher is certainly a key intertext for this latest genre outing from writers/directors/brothers Benjamin and Paul China (who even include a scene with a blade held over a shower curtain), but there are also shades of Ti West’s The Innkeepers (2011) and James Mangold’s Identity (2003), as things at the motel start to go bump in the night. For even as she befriends the place’s only guest, teen runaway Alice Marsh (Madison Hu), Gwen finds herself increasingly spooked, not only by the vermin and the noisy pipes, but also by the car that keeps lurking around the place (amid TV news reports that a murderer has escaped a nearby facility), by the calls she gets from ‘unlucky’ empty cabin no. 13, and by the actual, terrifying ghosts that she increasingly hears and sees haunting the property. With only a kitchen knife and a fire axe with which to defend herself, it is going to be a long night. 

Night Shift

“Dead birds! Dead fucking birds! I told you! Didn’t I say so!” says newly arrived, drunken guest Warner (Patrick Fischler) to his wife Birdie (Fischler’s real-life wife Lauren Bowles), openly acknowledging the similarity of this roadside inn to the Bates place in Hitchcock. This well-to-do couple has decided to slum it for some quickie, freaky sex “at a seedy motel,” as Birdie says, in a self-conscious flourish, “just like they do in the movies!”. Well-dressed and monied, they seem completely out of place in this grotty milieu. The casting of Fischler, familiar from the diner scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), only adds to their jarringly surreal presence, and they leave as suddenly as they arrive, almost as if they were never there.

This is, after all, the transitory nature of the motel – a liminal space where all the rooms are similarly rundown and, as Teddy puts it, “basically identical”, and where different different people with their different stories briefly cross paths. In this zone, a place that time forgot, where the past intersects with the present and where some who check in will never leave, Walton Grey (Christopher Denham), a figure from Gwen’s haunted history, is about to catch up with her, bringing mayhem and madness.  

Brilliantly confounding the supernatural and the psychological, Night Shift is a twisted, twisty tale of hospitality at its most uncomfortable and unhinged. For, on this long dark night of the soul, there is, in keeping with the metamorphosis symbolised by the butterfly pendant that Gwen carries with her, a change of management, and a radical refurbishment, coming to the establishment  – if it is not too late.

strap: Psycho-drama: Benjamin and Paul China’s genre-switching horror thriller checks a young woman in for overnight duty at a creepy old backroad motel

© Anton Bitel