Release Date(s)1988 (October 27, 2015)
Studio(s)The Samuel Goldwyn Company (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C
Writer-director Matthew Chapman’s thriller Heart of Midnight (1988) was a cable TV staple and familiar box on video store shelves throughout the early 1990s, but it never really found the appreciative audience it deserved. Incredibly original and audacious from beginning to end, its greatest strength – Chapman’s willingness to go for broke in every scene, taking visual, thematic, and narrative risks whenever possible – was also a liability in terms of critical response. Given the way the movie was deceptively marketed (as a kind of lurid erotic thriller) and clumsily dumped into theaters and then on home video, I think critics and audiences mistakenly assumed that Chapman didn’t know what he was doing – that the tonal shifts and wild plot twists were mistakes rather than products of a fully realized surrealist vision. Revisiting the movie now on Blu-ray, one can see that while it doesn’t necessarily earn comparison with the best of a master like David Lynch, it’s certainly closer in both quality and style to a film like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive than it is to the schlocky straight-to-video erotic thrillers with which it is often lumped.
Heart of Midnight tells the story of Carol (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a deeply troubled young woman who inherits an old nightclub from her uncle and moves into its upstairs apartment as a way of starting a new life. Already emotionally disturbed, Carol finds herself constantly on edge in the new place, as she’s plagued by strange noises and visions as well as the more concrete problem of the threatening men who occupy her rundown new neighborhood. Chapman slowly but steadily builds a complicated web of elusive plot points, haunting images and sounds that may or may not be imaginary, and disturbing sexual motifs that reveal Carol’s traumatic past in a highly unique cinematic form. Audiences looking for a conventional narrative will be frustrated, but anyone looking for a story told more through enigmatic visual and aural connections than a traditional cause-and-effect storyline will find a lot to appreciate here. Chapman’s audacity extends to every aspect of the filmmaking, from the highly stylized performances by Leigh, Peter Coyote, Frank Stallone, Steve Buscemi and others to an intentionally abrasive palette of clashing colors and sound effects at tonal odds with the action of any given scene.
This all makes for a one-of-a-kind viewing experience that plays even better now than it did when the film was released, partly because Lynch and other directors (Richard Kelly also comes to mind) have better prepared general audiences for this sort of untraditional visual storytelling. Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray is the film’s best home video presentation to date; the source material is flawless, and Chapman’s lurid colors and noir-ish lighting effects are impeccably preserved. The 2.0 stereo soundtrack is well balanced between music (by Yanni, of all people, who contributes an effectively haunting score), dialogue, and the movie’s intentionally harsh, sometimes irritating sound effects. Given the film’s dense visual and aural design and its highly allusive (and elusive) narrative, one can’t help but be a bit disappointed by the disc’s one extra feature, an amiable but largely uninformative commentary track by Chapman and Coyote. They sit silent for long passages, and when they do talk it’s largely to state the obvious, or point out an actor they like. Luckily, the film itself is so strong that it doesn’t really need the commentary track; to the contrary, perhaps its mysteries are best left unanswered.
- Jim Hemphill