September 29, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Erik Bloomquist
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Ten Minutes to Midnight” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Asians) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: After working at the same radio station for 30 years, a DJ gets bitten by a vampire bat and has conflicts with her lecherous boss and a much-younger rival who wants her job.
Culture Audience: “Ten Minutes to Midnight” will appeal primarily to people who like horror that mixes zaniness, bloody gore and timely social issues.
Horror movies often get stereotyped as nothing but mindless (and often bloody) killfests. But “Ten Minutes to Midnight” defies some horror clichés while still paying homage to retro horror movies of the 1980s. “Ten Minutes to Midnight” also achieves a rare balancing act of depicting serious social issues (without being preachy) while still maintaining a sense of gory fun.
Directed by Erik Bloomquist (who co-wrote the “Ten Minutes to Midnight” screenplay with his brother Carson Bloomquist), “Ten Minutes to Midnight” goes against the typical horror trope of having the lead female character as a woman under the age of 40. Caroline Williams (a real-life “scream queen” in many horror movies) is in the lead role of Amy Marlowe, who’s in her 50s and has been doing the same late-night slot at the same rock radio station for the past 30 years. The radio station—WLST-FM, nicknamed The Pulse—is a small operation in an unnamed U.S. city.
Amy loves her job and her audience, but she’s become jaded and insecure about how her age has affected her career trajectory. Based on some of the things that Amy says in the movie, it seems that she didn’t necessarily have huge ambitions to move up the radio ladder to a more desirable time slot. She stayed in her late-night shift because it was comfortable and she wasn’t perceived as a threat to other DJs who were much more aggressive and interested in getting more coveted time slots. Amy also didn’t move on to working at radio stations in bigger cities.
And what she gets in return for her loyalty isn’t sitting too well with her. She’s essentially been “asked to retire” from the station. It’s another way of a company telling an employee that the employee is considered too old to work there anymore. The company doesn’t want to fire the employee and possibly get sued for illegal age discrimination, so the employee is usually offered a retirement “exit package” as an incentive to leave.
It’s unknown if Amy got a great “exit package,” but the movie begins on the night of one of her very last shows on the air at WLST. Her retirement party has already been planned to take place the next day at the radio station. On this particular night, things aren’t going too well for Amy. There’s a hurricane that’s about to hit the area. And she’s gotten bitten on the neck by a flying creature, which she’s pretty sure was a bat. (The movie doesn’t show her get bitten.)
The title of the movie comes from the fact that Amy likes to go on the air 10 minutes before her time slot officially begins at midnight. When she arrives at the station to start her work shift, Amy tells the front-desk security guy named Ernie (played by Nicholas Tucci) about the bite on her neck and asks to use the first-aid kit. The wound consists of two parallel punctures on her neck, to make it obvious that Amy is eventually going to turn into a vampire.
Ernie’s creepy demeanor throughout the movie is “off,” as if there’s something mentally unbalanced about him. He’s got “crazy eyes” and he likes to carve wood with a knife while he’s sitting at his desk. And he’s also very strict about following “safety protocol” during a hurricane, which means that he’s not going to let people leave the station during the storm.
Before she goes on the air, Amy stops off in the office of her sleazy boss Robert, also known as Bob (played by William Youmans), who tells Amy about a newly hired female employee. Her name is Sienna Waller, who recently graduated with a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Sienna has moved back to her hometown to help take care of her ailing mother. Bob tells Amy that Sienna will be “shadowing” Amy so that Sienna can see how Amy does her job.
It’s obvious that Bob is grooming Sienna to replace Amy. And this rankles and offends Amy. Bob tells Amy that he met Sienna when she was a senior in high school, and he told her to contact him when she needed a job or career advice. Amy immediately assumes that Bob (who’s old enough to be Sienna’s father) has been sleeping with Sienna.
Bob responds to Amy’s assumption by saying this about his relationship with Sienna: “It’s harmless flirtation. You loved it when it was your turn. Play nice.” It’s at this point it’s clear that the tension between Amy and Bob is more than about her being forced to retire from WLST.
In the radio studio, Amy’s trusty engineer Aaron (played by Adam Weppler), a tattooed guy in his 20s with two ring piercings on his lower lip, starts reminiscing about how he grew up listening to Amy. (Weppler is one of this movie’s producers, along with Erik and Carson Bloomquist.) Aaron says his mother used to listen to WLST a lot when he was a kid and he would often fall asleep while the radio was playing. If he woke up and heard Amy’s voice, it meant that he was up past his bedtime. Aaron tells Amy that her radio show was comforting to him as a kid and he’ll always be a fan of hers.
Aaron might have intended for this conversation to help Amy feel good, but it probably just makes her feel old. And soon, her insecurities about her place in the radio world become even more apparent when Sienna (played Nicole Kang) shows up. Sienna is young, attractive and intelligent—which apparently makes Amy feel even more jealous that Sienna is probably going to replace Amy.
And the claws immediately come out. Amy and Sienna exchange some catty comments to each other that start when foul-mouthed Amy accuses Sienna of sleeping with Bob. Sienna replies that sleeping with the boss might have been the way Amy got her job, but Sienna says she’s too smart for that. Instead, Sienna says that she just made Bob think that Sienna was interested in sleeping with him. Sienna also makes some underhanded remarks about Amy’s age.
This argument is one of the best scenes in the movie not only because it’s kind of hilarious to watch but also because the dialogue is very realistic. It’s what women often really think (but usually don’t say out loud) when they’re faced with a female rival on the job. When age, sex appeal and ambition are very real factors that can determine whether or not a woman gets hired or promoted, especially if there’s a lecherous boss like Bob, it can touch some sensitive nerves that are connected to a woman’s ego.
People would like to think that women should only be judged by their talent, intelligence and personality in the workplace. But the #MeToo movement has proven that women (who are more likely than men to be survivors of sexual misconduct) are also judged by how they handle sexual misconduct. And the movie touches on that gray area that sometimes happens when a fling between a supervisor and an employee is consensual, but there’s always an imbalance of power. The implication is that if the employee who engages in this type of affair gets a raise, promotion or other career benefit, it’s because the employee slept with the boss.
And in its own subtle way, the argument scene between Amy and Sienna is also a commentary on the generation gap between these two women. In Amy’s Generation X, sexual harassment was dealt with in a less harsh way than in Sienna’s Generation Z that is experiencing how the #MeToo movement has made a big impact on how sexual harassment is handled. Social media, which has had a major influence on exposing #MeToo allegations, also didn’t exist for most of Amy’s radio career.
In an effort to embarrass Sienna and catch her off-guard, Amy makes a sudden decision to make Sienna her impromptu “co-host” for the night. Amy decides she’s going to do an “Ask Amy” segment where listeners can call in live on the air and ask for her advice. The segment doesn’t go very well, as Amy insults caller after caller.
Amy’s bitter rage finally explodes in an epic rant and meltdown that ends with Amy viciously biting Sienna’s wrist. While a shocked Sienna screams out in pain, Amy runs into the ladies’ room and starts rummaging through a garbage can. When Amy sees a bloody tampon in the garbage, she starts chewing on it. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. And it leaves no doubt that Amy has reached the “blood lust” stage of turning into a vampire.
Amy’s meltdown could be blamed on her altered state of mind, but one of the clever things that the movie does is leave it open to interpretation that Amy had a lot of anger building up inside her anyway. She’s feeling underappreciated and is being forced out of a job before she really wants to leave—not because the quality of her work has been going downhill but mostly because she’s gotten older. And so, she probably feels she has nothing to lose by going on this rampage, since she’s already been labeled a “washed-up has-been” anyway.
Meanwhile, someone like Bob (the one who most likely made the decision for Amy to “retire”) is older than Amy but no one questions his usefulness because of his age. It’s a gender double standard that exists in many industries but particularly in a male-dominated industry such as radio. And it’s not just a double standard for someone’s age either. Ever notice that male radio DJs are allowed to be overweight, but that’s rarely the case for female radio DJs?
When Bob calls Amy into his office, she’s unapologetic. He tells her that luckily for her, the second half of her on-air rant (which had the worst parts of the rant) actually wasn’t heard by the audience because of a weird fluke where solar flares temporarily stopped the radio signal from functioning. Bob (who expresses only a little concern about Sienna’s well-being) says he won’t fire Amy because he wants to give her a chance to redeem herself. He sleazily puts his hands between Amy’s legs and tells her that she has the rest of the night to figure it out.
And then, all hell breaks loose, but not always in ways that viewers of this movie might expect. There are several scenes in “Ten Minutes to Midnight” that have a hallucinatory quality where the viewers have to decide if what they’re seeing is part of the characters’ reality or if it’s the figment of a character’s imagination. The violence isn’t gratuitous, but might be too intense for some viewers.
Mixed with the horror is the absurd wackiness of the Ernie character, who’s like a security guard who takes his job seriously for all the wrong reasons. (“Ten Minutes to Midnight” is one of the last on-screen roles for Tucci, who died of cancer in March 2020.) And in a certain part of the movie, there’s a role-playing scene that’s absolutely bonkers and works very well for this movie’s unhinged sense of humor.
All of the actors in this movie are well-cast, but it’s the hostile dynamic between Amy and Sienna that stands out the most. Because vampires stop aging when they first became vampires, Amy’s issues over aging are quite ironic, considering that she’s turning into a vampire. Williams’ portrayal of Amy is thrillingly “go for broke” in how she realistically portrays the anguish of the “human” Amy and then the frightful blood lust of the “vampire” Amy.
The movie’s visual effects are adequate for this type of low-budget film, whose cinematography is reminiscent of 1980s horror flicks from Wes Craven. The real attraction of “Ten Minutes to Midnight” is to see how the characters go off the rails when they’re stuck inside the radio station with someone who’s turning into a vampire. If people want to see an entirely serious and grim horror movie, “Ten Minutes to Midnight” is not that film. There’s enough offbeat hilarity in the movie that will bring some laughs with the expected chills.
1091 Pictures released “Ten Minutes to Midnight” in select U.S. cinemas on September 17, 2020. The movie is set for release in virtual cinemas on October 15, 2020, and on digital and VOD on January 19, 2021.