Three hundred years ago vengeful witch Lucinda Cavender (Jonelle Allen) placed a curse on the small New England town of Pitchfork Cove, flooding it with zombies and demons. Until she was slain by a witch-hunter. Now on Halloween, 1985: Lucinda’s teenage great-great-great-great-granddaughter Melissa (Shari Belafonte) and her fun-loving high school friends Vernon (LeVar Burton), Mitch (Peter DeLuise), Mary (Dedee Pfeiffer) and Philip (Lee Montgomery) discover an incantation hidden in a dress at the town museum. Upon rashly reading said spell the teens inadvertently summon Lucinda back from the great beyond. As before the witch floods Pitchfork Cove with vampires, werewolves and the living dead. Including normal-looking adorable Fifties high school cheerleader Sandy (Jonna Lee) who teams up with dorky, lovelorn Philip, descendent of the original witch-hunter, to set things right before the town is destroyed by monsters.
Curiously and quite unjustly maligned by horror scribes, this flawed but very likable made-for-TV horror comedy delivers spooky Halloween fun. With its cosy small town setting, endearingly quirky characters, dark sense humour, Fifties nostalgia and Kevin McCarthy cameo, The Midnight Hour taps a very specific vibe more often found in Joe Dante movies. It also features a vibrant cast peppered with relatives of more famous stars (Shari, daughter of Harry Belafonte; Peter, son of Dom DeLuise; Dedee, sister of Michelle Pfeiffer) and "ooh, it’s that guy from..." supporting players like LeVar Burton (then better known for Roots (1977) than Star Trek: The Next Generation), a pre-Robocop (1987) Kurtwood Smith as a grouchy, Halloween-hating sheriff, sitcom regular Dick Van Patten as Philip’s weird dentist dad and Tron (1982) actress Cindy Morgan as the hot substitute teacher that gets all the guys talking.
Actor-turned-prolific-television director Jack Bender, who also made Child’s Play 3 (1988), weaves a fun ghoulish atmosphere. Various scary scenes where vampires or werewolves burst forth and actually maul folks to death carry a frisson more intense than one would expect from a ‘lightweight’ TV movie. Indeed Melissa’ slow-motion assault on a key character, intercut with shots of wine spilling all over the floor, proves a genuinely unnerving moment. It is sluggish in parts with a laborious set-up and gags (like the groovy zombie dwarf) occasionally a little too goofy to sit easily besides more serious moments.
Regrettably William Bleich’s script glosses over the racial tensions inherent in former slave Lucinda Cavender’s back-story. However there is an interesting moment however when Lucinda observes had women back in her day dressed the way Eighties girls do they would have been denounced as witches. Only for Melissa to reply: time’s change. One also doubts a contemporary treatment of this story would make the mistake of sidelining a black lead the way this does with Shari Belafonte. Even though she gets to lead the zombified cast in an obviously Thriller-inspire song-and-dance number (apparently the makeup crew were the same utilized in the iconic John Landis-directed Michael Jackson video). Instead the film mines its pathos from the star-crossed romance between Philip and Sandy, charmingly played by Lee Montgomery - by then already a genre veteran following his child actor turns in Ben (1972) and Burnt Offerings (1977) - Jonna Lee. The latter is especially engaging as the ebullient undead cheerleader who reverses all the Fifties ‘good girl’ clichés by proving gutsier in a fight, more knowledgeable about the occult and sexually forthright than dorky Eighties square Philip.
Interestingly, albeit in a manner that may have alienated some horror fans, The Midnight Hour devotes long chunks of screen-time to simply following its teenage protagonists while they hang out, mingle, discuss their relationships or sort out personal dilemmas. Almost like American Graffiti (1973) meets The Monster Squad (1987). Enhancing that American Graffiti-ish feel the film is peppered with vocal interjections from boomers’ favourite DJ Wolfman Jack while the soundtrack mixes Brad Fiedel’s cheery score and choice Eighties tracks like "How Soon Is Now" by The Smiths with oldies-but-goodies including, naturally, Otis Redding performing the title song.