The Midnight Hour is a made-for-TV film that originally aired on the ABC Network on November 1st, 1985. Yes, NOVEMBER 1ST. Why this film didn’t air during October remains a great mystery to me, and seems like a disservice to both fans and the film, as it’s saturated in Halloween themes and imagery. Maybe doing so would have garnered the film a larger fanbase. Instead, it remains a largely overlooked treasure.
The film is set in the small, fictional New England town of Pitchford Cove on the day of Halloween. Even for a film made during the 1980’s, Pitchford Cove feels a little trapped in the past, with milkmen and paperboys making their rounds through the autumnal leaf-strewn streets of what could arguably be any Mayberry-esque small town in middle America. The local high school students are all preparing for a huge unchaperoned Halloween costume party that evening. One of those kids is Phil Grenville (Lee Montgomery – Ben, Mutant). The son of the local dentist (played by TV legend Dick Van Patten), he is a little dorky, but quite likable. When we first meet him, Phil is trying to work up the courage to ask Mary (Deedee Pheiffer – Vamp, The Horror Show), to be his date to the party. However, while friendly with Phil, Mary is clearly uninterested in him in any romantic sense.
During a class report on the town’s own haunted history, Phil reveals that he’s a descendant of the town’s first minister, Nathaniel Grenville. Coincidentally, a powerful witch named Lucinda also lived in the town during that time. Not as coincidentally, Lucinda’s descendant, Melissa (Shari Belafonte-Harper), is also a classmate and friend of Phil’s.
It’s also mentioned that a witchcraft museum now resides in the town as a reminder of those times. This gives another of Phil’s friends, Mitch (Peter DeLuise of TV’s 21 Jump Street), the idea of “borrowing” costumes from the museum to wear at the party! Granted, these costumes (while in remarkably good condition) actually once belonged to the real Lucinda and Nathaniel. Along with the costumes, an old dusty chest is found. Inside are various antiques, which are also taken to be used as decorations for the party.
Fearing the consequences of getting caught, the teens head to the local cemetery to try on their “new” Halloween costumes. Along with the antiques, the chest contains a wax-sealed scroll. As anyone who has actually watched a horror film should be able to guess, the scroll is soon opened and read aloud…in this case, by Melissa.
The kids leave the cemetery, dressed in their costumes and convinced that the words on the scroll were nothing more than a superstitious goof. However, as also presumably expected, the incantation was a success and the notably well-preserved dead soon begin to rise from their graves. This includes Lucinda, more than a few zombies, a werewolf, and a pretty teenage girl dressed in a 1950’s era cheerleader’s outfit. Somewhat unfortunately, the scene offers up more horror imagery than the plot actually finds use for, but it still adds that nice, spooky touch.
Dressed as a vampire in a shiny silver wig, Phil drives his 1954 Cadillac convertible to the party… dateless. Along the way, he encounters the young cheerleader wandering along the train tracks, looking lost and alone. He is instantly smitten with this girl that he’s somehow never seen around town before. The girl, Sandy (Jonna Lee – Chained Heat, Quarterback Princess) asks him for directions. They chat for a bit longer before both heading their separate ways.
Meanwhile, the risen dead have reached the town and begin their wave of mayhem. A few citizens are killed, including the local judge (played by genre legend Kevin McCarthy), who also happens to be Mitch’s father. The film’s horror elements are undeniably on full display during these moments, particularly in a scene where dogs lap up the spilled blood of their owner!
Back in town, the Halloween party has begun and the party-goers are starting to arrive. A few ghouls crash the party, as does Lucinda (Jonelle Allen, TV’s Generations and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman). However, Phil is left broken-hearted and disenchanted once Mary arrives intent on hooking up with another guy.
While retrieving a bottle of wine from the cellar, Melissa runs into Lucinda. After some very awkward conversation between the two, Lucinda reveals herself to be a vampire (in addition to being a witch) before taking a quick sip from her great-great-or something-grandchild! Keep in mind that all of this is set to a backdrop of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”, which was still a newer song when the film originally aired! Making the scene that much stronger and visceral are that bottles of red wine start spraying their contents around the room as the bloodletting commences. Melissa becomes possessed by Lucinda’s evil and starts turning the other kids into more undead, starting with her boyfriend, Vinnie (literacy hero LeVar Burton)
His romantic aspirations dashed, Phil decides to leave the party. At the same time, Sandy returns to the street where she once lived to find that her house no longer stands, her family gone and new homes built in the years since her passing. The girl is confused, then saddened by the discovery. The two teens soon cross paths again on the city streets and strike up another conversation. Much more outgoing and forward than Phil, Sandy asks the boy to take her for a ride in his “hep” convertible.
In no time, Sandy exerts her charms on the boy, convincing him to do things he never would have normally considered, such as drag racing. The two teens are caught up in enjoying each other’s company, but Phil finds it a little odd when Sandy asks him to take her to places that closed years prior, such as the local malt shoppe or drive-in.
Romance blooms between these 2 lonely souls. While Sandy helps Phil learn to let loose and take chances, he helps her remember what it is like to be alive. Soon, the two sweethearts are slow-dancing shoulder to shoulder in the empty parking lot of the multiplex that was once the malt shoppe. Completely oblivious to the world surrounding them, they are truly lost in the moment.
Eventually, Sandy asks Phil to take her to Lookout Point, which was the “make-out spot” in her day, as well as where all the kids went to drag race on weekend nights. Although he knows that “the kids” surely won’t be “hanging out” there this evening (or any other), he agrees, if only to make the girl smile. Lookout Point does indeed prove to be deserted. However, it’s not much of a disappointment as he finally gets to kiss her, which proves to be its own form of Halloween magic (even if Sandy is… ya know, dead).
The “magic” is short lived, however, as the moment is ruined by an appearance from the werewolf. The couple flee to town, finding that things are just as bad there. Phil tells Sandy about the reading of the scroll at the graveyard. She informs him, as she all too intimately knows, that the dead truly have risen. While some have returned to find something missing from their own (sometimes short) lives, others are simply evil beings who have returned to kill, which we kinda already knew. To break the curse, the scroll must be resealed, using the ground bones of Nathaniel Grenville in the wax seal, by midnight or the spirits of the dead will be allowed to roam forever, and those they have been killed or tainted will remain as such.
The Midnight Hour is probably best remembered for an embarrassingly 80s-rific song and dance number by Belafonte (as well as other member of the cast), and that does indeed soon follow. While quite the sight, the scene actually detracts from the story. As such, this will be the extent to which I choose to discuss it. That said, here it is if you choose to watch it.
The film culminates in the town being overrun by the forces of the dead, with Phil and (somewhat) Sandy the only survivors. Zombies and ghouls wander the streets, carrying on as they would had they never died… or perhaps more freely because of it. Phil and Sandy finally reach the graveyard with the full legion of undead hot on their heels. They retrieve the dust that was Grenville’s bones from his tomb and lock themselves in Phil’s car to reseal the scroll while the dead attempt to rip the car apart. The ritual doesn’t appear to be working.. until Sandy, her eyes radiating both infinite sadness and long-sought happiness at the same time, tells Phil that she loves him… and says “goodbye”.
A bright white light fills the car. When it passes, the undead have vanished,… and so has Sandy. Phil finds that all has evidently returned to normal. He then discovers a tombstone nearby that reads: “Sandra Matthews 1942-1959”. Written in lipstick are the initials “SM + PG”, with a kiss next to them. Finally realizing where Sandy “came from”, and what she meant and will mean to him, Phil says that he loves her too.
Preparing to leave the cemetery, Phil hears Wolfman Jack make the first of his post-midnight dedications on the radio: Barbara Lewis’s “Baby, I’m Yours”, from Sandy to Phil. (Granted, the song released in 1965, 6 years after Sandy’s death, but it’s an incredibly sweet moment, so we’ll just let it slide.) Phil can only sit in his car, wavering between smiling and crying. The song plays as Phil drives away into the night, ending the film on a rather somber note.
While the film features enough monsters, ghouls, and other eerie horror imagery to satiate any Halloween or horror fanatic, it’s the love story at the center of The Midnight Hour that always pulls me back to the film each Halloween. While I freely admit to this tale of young hearts hitting me right in the “feels” every damned time, only in the last few years have I learned just how important (and personal) the film’s message really is.
Despite the scares and the horror, the film and the Halloween night that takes place within it both end with the same overall theme: Love… and loss. Phil and Sandy find their love, and in the end, that’s all they will ever have. That, and the memories of one magical, memorable (and terrifying) Halloween night. Phil must carry on, knowing that he will never see Sandy again. Never get to kiss her or hold her again. Never hear her say “I Love You!” again. However, as the song says, they will be in each other’s hearts “until the mountain crumbles to the sea. In other words, until eternity”.
It’s not much different in our own lives. When the ones we love say “goodbye”, we are left with the memories, which may slowly fade or blur with time. Yet, the love we had never dies. Our love for them does not change, and their love for us (or our memory of that love) stays constant, and is ultimately the one thing that will get us through the loss and the sadness. It’s the constant flame to help keep us warm and safe through the coldest, darkest moments. We must survive and carry on, for we have no choice. Besides, doing differently would only dishonor the memories of that love.
Yes, Halloween is about the ghosts and the goblins; the jack o’lanterns and trick or treaters. And yes, it’s also the time to watch a ton of horror films,… but really… what’s the purpose of any of those things if we aren’t sharing them with others? We all have our fond memories of Halloween’s past, but what made those memories so “fond”? Was it the holiday itself or was it those that we shared it with?
Like any other day, the next Halloween is not a “given”. It’s up to each of us to make the most of it, and to show our love, gratitude, and appreciation for those that make each and every Halloween (or any other day) so special and important to us, kinda like each person who takes part in this yearly Halloween series does for me. Just don’t wait until The Midnight Hour to do so. You might not get another chance.
Dedicated to the Memory of
Zaida P. Fallon
Nov 19 1947 – Sept 22 2019