The air is always a little heavy, the light a little blurry in Matthew Chapman's new thriller, "Heart of Midnight" (AMC Century 14). Watching it is like trying to peer through contact lenses that have gotten clotted with tears, smoke, even fogged with a little imitation Roman Polanski.
Chapman, who made the clever, little romantic thriller, "Strangers Kiss" back in 1984, is trying something more lurid and primal here. And he's stumbling. This is another movie psycho-thriller about sex, the dark past and a lady-in-distress and it takes place in Polanski-land: a deserted old city edifice, full of shadowy corridors, repulsion and cul-de-sacs. The wind hums, the night reeks. And as Ray Rivas' cinematography gets smearier and softer, bluer and more velvety, the eyes blink, frantically.
We're in a nightclub called Midnight, honeycombed with strange attics, crawl-spaces and locked-up rooms where evil breaks out like an oily sweat. Wandering bemusedly through it all, with an expression of vague curiosity, is Chapman's distressed lady: Jennifer Jason Leigh as Carol Rivers, a girl apparently scarred forever by obscure childhood memories involving a leering uncle who kept offering her apples.
Carol's attempt at recuperation seems dubious; she seeks to exorcise the past by accepting her uncle's legacy, taking up residence in his club, "Midnight," and undergoing several days of increasingly escalating, and thoroughly predictable, psychological hell.
Unsurprisingly, she is soon deluged with apples, locked rooms, bad dreams, skulking transsexuals, prowlers, police and things going bonkers in the night. Apparently, this vile old ex-bordello--warehouse was designed by the lecherous Uncle Fletcher to cater to innumerable vices and depravities. There's a room for everything: pedophilia in the teddy bear bedroom, bondage and discipline in the whip-and-rack room.
For a neurotic homebody, Carol proves pretty resilient. Nothing fazes her: a rape by two leather-jacketed creeps, insubordination from surly carpenters, Peter Coyote popping up and claiming to be a policeman, and a set of "Nightmare on Elm Street" dreams hurling her from one fantasy to the next. Grisly or improbable, she takes it all remarkably in stride.
Here, Chapman gets lost in Polanski, strangles himself in "Blue Velvet," hoists himself by his own Hitchcock.
Not even Coyote--good as usual as the ambivalent pseudo-cop--can save things. Chapman copies from the past without enlivening the present and the result is faintly queasy and sordid, a formula thriller that lacks even the creepy power of an above-ground kink-melodrama like "Kinjite." "Heart of Midnight" (rated R for sex, violence, language) is a set of variations without a theme, a hell with too many exit signs, an apple without a core.