By Thomas Puhr.

The Stuart Gordon ingredients are indeed there, though the film which precedes this loving dedication fails to do anything interesting with them.”

Rich Ragsdale’s The Long Night (2022) – we learn during its end credits – is dedicated to schlock-master Stuart Gordon. This comparison makes sense: the film – Shudder’s latest quota-meeting release – boasts plenty of blood, along with a dash (but, alas, not nearly enough) of macabre sexuality and cosmic weirdness. The Gordon ingredients are indeed there, though the film which precedes this loving dedication fails to do anything interesting with them.

Scout Taylor-Compton (of Rob Zombie’s Halloween saga) and Nolan Gerard Funk star as Grace Covington and Jack Cabot, two young lovers who decide to leave their luxurious New York apartment and travel to – honestly, I’m not quite sure where, though it’s very rural and comes with the requisite suspenders-wearing gas station attendant who suspects these folks aren’t from around these parts. The local, it turns out, is half right; though Jack is a spoiled WASP (“They don’t teach this shit at Princeton!” he exclaims, once the shit to which he refers hits the fan), but Grace grew up there and is now seeking information about her estranged parents. Hence, their visit to a secluded house for the weekend.

I’m all for writers and directors tipping their hats to the classics, but Ragsdale takes derivation to a sometimes painful level. You’ve got the creepy shrine on the side of the road; the torch-bearing cultists; the “guy who shows up to help and is promptly killed” character. The list goes on. Most shameless, however, is a prologue lifted right out of The Shining (1980). Of course, countless films – even really goodones (see Neil Marshall’s The Descent, 2005, or even Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, 2015) – have lifted Kubrick’s overhead shot of a car zigzagging through forestland, but none to my knowledge have had the gall to do so over Penderecki’s booming “The Awakening of Jacob.” It doesn’t help that screenwriters Mark Young and Robert Sheppe incorporate title cards like “The Invitation” and “The Encounter.”

As you’ll know from the film’s poster (not to mention its trailer), the couple is terrorized by a group of elk skull-wearing cultists, who spend nearly an hour of The Long Night’s 90-minute runtime standing outside forebodingly with torches (I’ll resist the temptation to make a cheap jab about how the film is “indeed a long night”). What are Grace and Jack doing throughout this time, you ask? Mostly looking out the window at said cultists and running around the house during the occasional intrusion. This standoff quickly becomes grating. Sure, a close-up of a skull mask illuminated by flames can be creepy and cool, but the image loses its luster after, say, the tenth time.

The above may have been more forgivable – or at least palatable – if the film mustered one or two genuine scares. But Ragsdale succumbs to easy (often unintentionally humorous) tactics; an early juxtaposition from a character soothingly saying “don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine” to a possessed Grace shrieking into the camera will likely elicit more laughs than jumps. Even young viewers new to the genre will likely be too savvy to let such tricks get under their skin.

A handful of moments exhibit some stylistic flair. Ragsdale incorporates a few single takes that are – if considered independently from the intervening scenes – pretty impressive: the first, as Grace and Jack wander around the creepy old house upon their arrival (though James Wan did the same thing, and much better, in 2013’s The Conjuring); the second, as a bloodstained Grace wanders a neighboring property, begging for help. And to be fair, once the couple and cultists stop staring at each other and get down to bloody business, there are some fun, trippy visuals to soak in. Take, for instance, a sex scene which unexpectedly dips into the cosmic when a character’s opened legs reveal a portal into a demonic galaxy. Subtle? Not at all. Questionable? Maybe. But at least such moments try to do something strange and challenging.

This all-too-rare willingness to swing for the fences is what separates The Long Night from Stuart Gordon fare. Yes, just as Ragsdale shamelessly steals from The Shining in the aforementioned expository scene, Gordon did from Psycho (1960) in the opening credits of Re-Animator, right down to the shrieking, Herrmann-esque violins. But here’s the thing; the 1985 cult classic, derivative though it may be, is effective: gross, often laugh-out-loud funny (on purpose), and, well, fun to watch. If you want a healthy dose of Lovecraftian madness, you’re better off revisiting Gordon’s catalog, or even certain contemporary outings like Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space (2019). Just because a genre exercise is trashy doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. 

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