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‘Heart of Midnight’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 06, 1989


Matthew Chapman
Jennifer Jason Leigh;
Peter Coyote;
Frank Stallone;
Brenda Vaccaro
Under 17 restricted

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Tense, suggestive and maddeningly opaque, "Heart of Midnight" is an assortment of stylish gothic non sequiturs. Directed by Matthew Chapman, it's a haunted-house movie, but the ghoulies that bedevil the high-strung and suggestible young heroine, Carol (Jennifer Jason Leigh), are the nasty vibes that linger from the time when the nightspot she inherits from her uncle -- known as the Midnight -- was a kinky sex club. For years, lasciviousness has been eating away at the moral ozone, and the unfiltered rays are boring directly into her brain.

Carol, who for some reason appears throughout the film with one leg in a cast, functions as a kind of antenna for these vibrations. On the floor above the main disco, each chamber is a carnal playpen, each with its own atmospheric decor, its own fantasy landscape. (The film's color motifs seem to have come directly from Roger Corman's "Masque of the Red Death.") After Carol's arrival, she inspects the premises, and as the door to each room is opened, the noises that have been stored up over the years leak out onto the soundtrack.

All the huffing and puffing, though, turns out to be somewhat misleading. "Heart of Midnight" is about sex -- specifically, the wreckage of sexual depravity -- without being the least bit sexy. The picture, which Chapman wrote as well as directed, works more as a kind of art tease than as a psychological horror show. It's haute macabre and hopelessly silly. But Leigh is a marvel. She has some of that feeling of damaged goods that Tuesday Weld used to have, but there's something wholly singular about her neurasthenia -- an innocence -- that makes Carol seem even more fragile, even more in danger. Whenever the movie leaves you wandering without a map, her performance works as a compass to get us back on track.

There's a touch of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" in the way the camera skitters threateningly down hallways, and some of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" in the sense of dread bleeding out of the wallpaper. "Heart of Midnight" is very consciously a genre piece; unfortunately Chapman devotes more of his energy to explicating his allusive style than to telling his story and satisfying his audience.

Some of this distractedness is playful, especially when it comes to the actors. Peter Coyote is inhibited by the vague dimensions of his roles, but his way-beyond-craggy oddness fits well in the general design. Then there's Frank Stallone, who makes his most uninhibited -- and weirdest -- movie appearance yet as an unfeeling police detective. What he does on camera has nothing to do with anything else in the film. It's all his own. And that's just the way you want it.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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