a.k.a. The Haunted Motel




Titles are tough. You want to come up with one that tells what your movie's about in a way that's unique and gets attention.

Fun fact: titles can't be copyrighted. An author can "own" plot, character names, etc., but not the name of the project. You could make a movie and call it The Godfather or Gone with the Wind. It'd be compared to the original, of course, but you could do it. For example, Sam Raimi doesn't own the words "the," "evil," and "dead."

Search the movie site IMDb for the title Night Shift, and you get dozens of films and shorts right off the bat. Refine your search to "Night Shift 2023" and you get at least fifteen. For a new film called Night Shift, standing out isn't going to be easy.

That title problem is a clue of what's at issue with this first film by a duo called the China Brothers. You've seen this story before.

This is an issue with many of the "first-time auteurs" that fill our current craving for content. The ease with which movies can be made (some are filmed over a weekend on an iPhone) and distributed has opened a floodgate of imitators.

In this particular Night Shift: A mysterious young woman named Gwen Taylor applies for a job at the front desk of a ramshackle motel and is assigned to work—what else?—the night shift. The place has seen better days: it's in the middle of nowhere, the rooms are falling apert and most of them are empty. The stuffed bear's head in the office keeps falling off the wall; the pool has been drained by a sinkhole. Plus there's the spooky vibe: kid's swings creak and sway even when there's no wind, the "janky" wi-fi can't be relied on (a must in this sort of movie: sketchy communication with the outside world), a car with blackout windows keeps cruising by. And there are few guests, one really, and another who might just have come up from the bowels of hell.

The China Brothers, Paul and Ben, are reaching for a kind of brother-notoriety attained by the Coens and Wachowskis. Like most first films, Night Shift is derivative. The Chinas know what they like and want to reproduce it. Hints of Lynch are everywhere: Phoebe Tonkin, who plays Gwen, has a Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks) thing going on, with her arched eyebrows, high cheekbones, and sly eyes. The interplay between Gwen and Alison, a ditzy teen (Madison Hu), calls up Mulholland Drive. And Patrick Fischler, one of David Lynch's go-to actors, does a turn as half of a kinky couple booking a room.

More: what crawls out of the motel pool's sinkhole could have come from The Ring. And at other points, you might wonder if you've stumbled into the Bates Motel.

Still, Night Shift is an accomplishment. Up till now, the China Brothers' sole credit has been the screenplay for Sweet Virginia, 2017. They might wear their influences like epaulets, and their ambitions might be modest, but their storytelling is solid. Few flashy effects, no show-off sequences. I'm guessing they came in under budget.

The actors are into it: Ms. Tonkin (an Australian actor known for the CW's Vampire Diaries and more recently Netflix's Boy Swallows Universe) is onscreen almost constantly and carries the action well. Lamorne Morris (impressive in the most recent season of FX's Fargo) as the motel manager has an easy charm. And Madison Hu, who can currently be seen in Netflix's The Brothers Sun, as the (slightly too-old) teenager Alison is an able sidekick.

The score, credited to Blitz//Berlin, hits all the horror movie notes, telegraphing the many jump scares.

In the press materials, the China Brothers maintain that their main purpose is “to entertain.” Well, okay. Maybe next time, rather than a rehash, dig deeper for an original vision, something that breaks new ground, like the movies you admire.

But first, guys, reconsider that title. You don't want your movie to get lost in a sea of Night Shifts. How about something like "The Haunted Motel"? It's short and tells you what you're in store for.

I'd go see that.

Night Shift. Directed by the China Brothers. 2023. From Quiver Distribution. In theaters and on VOD. 82 minutes.

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