Dead of Night (Short, 2010)

Dead of NightReviewed by Erik W. Van Der Wolf

Starring Stevan Vujic, J. Preston Taub, Laura Wettingfeld, Charlie S. Jensen, Joanna Krupa, Matthew Mages, Heather Schlitt

Written and directed by Nicholas J. Michalak

Short films are tricky things to pull off. Within the confines of time and budget, a filmmaker must present a three-act structure as succinctly as possible without being obvious and find a way to be visually impressive without being obtrusive and distract the audience from the whole.

Unfortunately, “obvious“ and “obtrusive“ are the two words that can best describe Dead of Night.

Written and directed by Nicholas J. Michalak, this short pic tells the story of FBI Profiler Cyrus Vendelin and his pursuit of vicious serial killer Leonard Marshall Eccleston. Cyrus is seriously dialed into Leonard, knows what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling, and is determined to stop him — tonight — before he can kill again.

However, Leonard already has his next victim in his sights and is about to close in for the kill, and it becomes a race against time: Will Cyrus get there in time to stop him? Or will he arrive too late to once again only get to clean-up the mess? And — do we care?

The answer is both yes and no. There’s a good short film here somewhere; Michalak just didn’t find it.

The problem is that Dead of Night simply tries too hard. From the overwritten script wrought with dialogue from Cyrus and Leonard that strives (and fails) to be deep and headsy to the heavy-handed camera work that does nothing but draw attention to itself and disrupt the flow of the story. Michalak (who also handled cinematography duties) attempts a cinema-verite style that simply doesn’t work here. It seems out of place for this kind of story and is done in a manner that actually makes the film hard to watch. In nearly every scene the camera is either moving, zooming in, or at an extreme Dutch angle (sometimes all three at once), seemingly for no reason other than to try and impress. Sadly, the impression it leaves isn’t a good one. Which is a shame because there’s a nice set-up and payoff here that could have been quite effective had Michalak had the confidence in the material to simply let it play and not feel as though he had to “amp” it up with extreme camera language that never seems organic to the story.

On a positive note the seeds of a talented filmmaker are quite obvious here. Michalak clearly understands film language and story structure, and if “confidence” and “restraint” can become the operative words moving forward, I suspect we’ll see something fairly impressive in the future.

1 1/2 out of 5

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  • NickMichalak

    Let me honestly say that I knew that this would not be an easy film to really get a full understanding of, and that is not meant as a knock on anyone who doesn’t. Even in the casting process, I knew the only way the auditioning actors could properly grasp the characters is to have the entire script as opposed to the usual single scene. There was a lot of psychological pathology put into the story and characters behind the scenes. The film implies more than it explicity states, andt some may or may not pick up on that. “Manhunter” was the inspiration for this film, and that is a film that works on many unspoken levels. I don’t presume that “Dead Of Night” can measure up to the masterful work of Michael Mann, but it is one of my main aspirations as a filmmaker.

    There is also a three part web series created from additional scripted and improvisational material shot during production of the movie. These webisodes help to give a little more background on the characters of FBI Agents Cyrus Vendelin and Christopher Mannix. Unfortunately, one episode was not able to be shot which would’ve connected everything much better. These can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/ravensfilm

    I do admit that I’m not all that pleased with some of the handheld camera work. If I had a real steadicam or access to a dolly, things would’ve turned out better to my liking, but sometimes, compromises have to be made due to the limitations of a no budget production. Still, there are a few small shots where I simply was caught up in the momentum of the shoot, and didn’t take the time to grab the tripod for a locked down shot. That’s an ugly thing to say publicly, but I’ve had two years to contemplate these moments.. I also have a weak ego, and so, I don’t mind pointing out my own flaws. However, you’ll see an amazingly vast improvement on my new 24p HDV film “P.I. Dangerous” shot by my friend and actual Director Of Photography Eric Woltman (who also shot episode #3 of the web series).

    Now, I do wish the quality of the acting was covered in this review. Regardless of what you think of the writing, these actors put forth their absolute best efforts, and impressed me at every turn while shooting this film. They brought these characters to three dimensional life for me, and I couldn’t be more pleased with what they accomplished. They were all true professionals from start to finish. Everyone can judge this for themselves at http://www.vimeo.com/ravensfilm where you can watch the film (in albeit lower than DVD quality) for free. This review also neglects to mention the music of “Dead Of Night.” While it is not an originally composed score, but instead was culled together, mostly, from freely available (yet professionally produced tracks), I just wish a reaction was made of it.

    I do thank you for taking the time to honestly review the film, and I ask everyone to make a judgment for themselves as well. Thirty minutes and ten seconds of your time is all it requires. It was greatly enjoyed by attendees of Milwaukee’s Firestarter Films event back in January. The DVD is available through Amazon.com with my own commentary, the three webisodes, and trailers.

    -Nicholas J. Michalak, RavensFilm Productions

    Official DEAD OF NIGHT Website