About halfway through director Jennifer Reeder and writer Brett Neveu’s Night’s End, a character explains to Ken Barber (Geno Walker) that the ghost haunting his apartment may in fact be haunted herself. Colin Albertson (Lawrence Grimm), the occult author whose book inspired Ken to create a “spirit jar” in hopes of exorcising his unwanted guest, details research into the ghost’s identity which would point to her own mother becoming a demonic presence desperate to torture her child’s trapped soul in a “ghost loop.” While that’s a whole lot of over-the-top nonsense on its surface, the act itself proves a metaphorical interpretation of Ken’s own destructive cycle. His divorced father moved cities for a fresh start only to find himself suffering from a reclusive lifestyle of fear and regret.
It’s the first time I felt something being said beyond simple light tricks. And I creeped a bit closer to the edge of my seat anticipating where the journey might take Ken—towards clarity, perhaps healing. Unfortunately, however, that seemingly solid connection point between supernatural and psychological is soon exposed as little more than a tenuous distraction at best: while the first half focuses on Ken’s mental state and the severity of his consistent spiraling into isolation and depression, the second embraces an abrupt shift into camp that directly coincides with the appearance of a very game Michael Shannon as his ex-wife Kelsey’s (Kate Arrington) new husband Isaac.
Suddenly they (and Ken’s best friend Terry, as played by Felonious Munk) pivot from worry to excitement. What had begun as a way of avoiding the outside world and finding a job, Ken’s self-help YouTube videos earning minimal attention have suddenly found traction with the addition of unexplained phenomena happening in the background. So they change their tune—from trying to get him to stop to imploring him to continue because they love the adrenaline rush these types of viral clips cultivate, courtesy curatorial channels like that of the prolific Dark Corners (Daniel Kyri). While Terry and Kelsey still possess apprehension where Ken’s state of mind is concerned, they also hope the ghost stuff will be a distraction. And Isaac can’t help himself from chanting for more.
Neveu writes in some conflict as far as viewers accusing Ken of faking everything, but its impact hardly resonates beyond another means with which to goad him into continuing. Which makes sense, considering Night’s End was very clearly conceived and filmed during COVID lockdown with every character interacting over Zoom calls, no matter how desperate the situation turns (Ken is miles away from the others, so it’s his only means of face-to-face contact). Neveu and Reeder have provided Ken nothing but reasons to keep going. His only hope for salvation is removing the horror, and no one can do it but him thanks to the choices he’s made since his former life imploded. It’s why I assumed the aforementioned metaphor would ultimately add meaning to theatrics.
That it’s forgotten is disappointing; it seemed the only reason this story was being told. If a bigger budget and better resources could have turned its unsurprising (yet wild) climax into something special, its current form instead screams “we had to end it somehow.” As soon as the tone moves from drama to comedy, all the work that was done showcasing Ken’s emotional fragility—e.g. a great pattern built by morning coffee and the fluctuating ratio between caffeine and milk revealing how frayed he’s become—is wiped clean. The attempt to empathize with him and hope for his survival is, too—he ultimately becomes a pawn to the plot like everyone else. His own one-man show renders him a prop.
Credit Reeder for trying to make it work despite her limitations. Ken’s home is the only lived-in set and probably the only place where an actual crew was involved. The others are shown via computer screens, isolated from the rest (Arrington and Shannon are married in real life), and thus not in need of anything crazy beyond post-production effects during the finale. Because the script must try so hard to facilitate this disconnected scenario, however, it has no time to make it feel narratively authentic rather than logistically necessary. It’s why the influx of humor helps. How else can you make static reaction shots interesting? Let the cast ham it up. It doesn’t seem like Reeder needed to push Shannon or Grimm too hard to do so either.
While objectively fun, those laughs also prove diversionary in the opposite direction; we’ve already invested forty minutes into Walker’s genuinely affecting performance. He successfully supplies his character three-dimensional depth that’s able to make us want him to dig his way out from under his internal struggle. To ignore that and transform the film into being all about the external struggle that’s only using him as a conduit is a massive disservice. Because there is still a message to be had in doing so: telling Ken that he needs to deal with himself before dealing with others. I don’t think Night’s End lets him, though. It refuses to give him that chance and instead provides a nihilistic outlook that nothing he does matters. So what’s the point?
Night’s End is now on Shudder.