(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we head into the night for films that start near dusk and end before dawn.)
Movies that take both characters and viewers on a short journey through a single night aren’t exactly rare. Numerous horror films employ the time crunch as an easy way of focusing and ramping up the intensity – imagine John Carpenter‘s Halloween (1978) spread over a full week and you’ll see why a single night of terror is far more terrifying. Carpenter also used it to increase suspense in films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape from New York (1981), while other action/thrillers followed suit including The Warriors (1979), Judgment Night (1993), Collateral (2004), Attack the Block (2011), and more.
Comedies have played the overnight game too, with films as diverse as Superbad (2007), Go (1999), Clue (1985), Dazed and Confused (1993), and Adventures in Babysitting (1987). Hell, the entirety of The Purge franchise is built on the concept. There are so many examples that it’s difficult to pick the best of the bunch.
Ha! Just kidding, the best film set across a single night is Martin Scorsese‘s After Hours (1985), with a short list of runners up that includes 25th Hour (2002), American Graffiti (1973), Die Hard (1988), and Carpenter’s aforementioned 1976 classic. But you’ve seen all of those, so what do you say we find some new journeys into the darkness?
Keep reading for a look at great but lesser known movies set over a single night that you’ve probably never seen.
Self Defense (1983)
A police strike in a Nova Scotian city sees an increase in brazen criminal activity, including some hate-filled antics by a roving gang of hooligans. When their abuse gets out of hand in a bar resulting in a death, they panic and kill all of the witnesses – except one, who escapes into a nearby apartment building. Some of the residents take him in, but they quickly find themselves targeted by the fascist thugs who turn their quiet evening into a night of terror.
Like Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, the film focuses on strangers stepping up to protect someone they don’t know, and the film’s not shy about the cost of such acts. It lends weight to the drama that follows as not all of our good samaritans survive to see the next morning, and that in turn ramps up the suspense as these otherwise normal people are forced to fight for their lives and the lives of others. Weapons are scarce, so they make do having to science the shit out of whatever scraps they can gather into implements of death.
While Carpenter’s classic remains the king of modern siege films, this under-seen Canadian gem is one of many that followed in its bloody footsteps. It belongs in the same conversation as films like Trespass (1992) and Tower Block (2012) as its blend of humanity and inhumanity offers an intense look at both the kindness and brutality of strangers. The film’s main intent is suspense and thrills, obviously, but it’s hard to deny its existence as a heightened microcosm of society’s ever-increasing divide.
Self Defense is not currently available (outside of YouTube).
Alphabet City (1984)
Johnny has the streets of the city under his thumb. Well, certain streets, and under a thumb weighted down with the mob he works for, anyway. It’s a life he’s happy with until the big boss gives him an order: burn down the apartment building that Johnny’s family still lives in. Johnny’s not about to do that, though, and now the big boss wants him burned, too.
On the surface, director/co-writer Amos Poe‘s mid-’80s genre effort seems to be a fairly generic thriller about a bad man trying to go straight despite the worst efforts of his criminal employer. It is just that to a degree, but it’s also far from what the decade and genre taught viewers to expect. Bold lighting illuminates rooms and alleyways with purples, greens, and blues, and break-dancers in tracksuits boogaloo on random sidewalks – presumably in protest of the proliferation of burning barrels lining the streets. Time is spent in conversation and in clubs with scenes that almost meander but somehow always feel intentional.
It’s the real world, but it’s a film more interested in style and atmosphere than doing much with its narrative. That could be a bad thing, but Poe builds his world with care, creating something of a moody time capsule in the process. ’80s music plays throughout, and while much of it sounds familiar, I can assure you it isn’t. And did I mention Michael Winslow as our hero Vincent Spano’s right-hand man? Yes, Police Academy‘s Michael Winslow… and yes he’s still doing his sound effects even as a drug dealer. It’s odd but never less than engaging.
Alphabet City is available on DVD.
Miracle Mile (1988)
It’s never too late for love at first sight…unless it is. Harry has just met the girl of his dreams, and as he waits for her to arrive at a late-night diner, he answers a call in a phone booth that brings his whole world to the ground: a man has misdialed in his attempt to warn his family of an impending missile strike, and now Harry knows what he shouldn’t. And soon the rest of the night owls in Los Angeles will, too.
Many of you have already seen this one, but so many more of you still need to. One of the many charms of writer/director Steve De Jarnatt‘s under-seen film is its ability to build suspense and intensity without the vaguest confirmation that the phone call was anything more than a prank. Harry tells someone, and they tell someone else, and so on until the city’s quiet nighttime streets come alive with panic. Tense interactions, drama, and action beats unfold on the back of that single phone call, and it all builds to something pretty special.
Anthony Edwards takes lead here as the smitten Harry, and his earnest performance sells the romance even as everything around him goes to hell. Mare Winningham, Denise Crosby, Brian Thompson, and Mykelti Williamson round out the familiar faces as characters caught up in the madness Harry’s triggered. The film takes full advantage of the city’s streets and landscape to deliver a fun and fascinating “what if” scenario.
Miracle Mile is available on Blu-ray/DVD and streaming.
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