With more and more movie streaming services starting up, it can feel impossible to keep track of what’s showing where. So to help, this October I’ll be recommending a different film every day from one such service that embodies the spooky spirit of the season. From classic Halloween movies to indie horror to campy dark comedies, this is 31 Days of a Very Chingy Halloween.
To kick off this month of freaky and frightening flicks, I’m looking at After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s distinctly New York horror story of a night out gone awry, currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is bored out of his mind after a long day of data entry at the office. When a charming young woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) asks him to spend time with her late into the evening, Paul eagerly hops in a taxi to her SoHo loft as the clock nears midnight. But when things at Marcy’s don’t go as swimmingly as planned, he attempts to head home, though numerous obstacles prevent him. What starts as an awkward date quickly escalates into the worst — and quite possibly last — night of Paul’s life.
Though played for comedy, After Hours is genuinely terrifying. It uses social discomfort to build tension that gradually transforms into actual terror. Paul experiences mishap after mishap at a breakneck pace, witnessing burglaries, suicides, murders and a violent, angry mob over the course of his late night in SoHo. Everyone who tries to help him just makes his problems more dire. At a certain point, it begins to feel like a metropolitan version of Homer’s Odyssey, with Paul serving as a yuppy Ulysses being punished by the gods for being horny and inconsiderate.
The narrative of After Hours is fully built into its New York environment. As we’re shown from the film’s opening, Paul works as a word processor and everything in his life is just as beige and nondescript as he is. He’s a khaki man who wears khaki clothes and lives in a khaki apartment full of khaki furniture. It’s the story of a yuppy venturing out of the bubble of his sedate Uptown Manhattan life, looking for a little excitement in the lively SoHo district, but encountering more than he knows how to deal with in these artist lofts, dive bars, punk clubs and alleyways.
Paul ventures to Marcy’s loft expecting to get sex, but rejects her and lashes out because he’s uncomfortable with the personal details she shares with him (her experiences with rape and openness about her divorce) as well as superficial reasons such as her burn scars. The imagery of Paul’s symbolic castration, helplessness and possible demise are spread throughout the film — from rats snapped in traps, to a paper-mache rendition of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, to a bathroom drawing of a shark biting off someone’s dick. And though he encounters multiple other interested women throughout the night, they all seem to emasculate him in some way.
After Hours was somewhat personal for Scorsese, with Paul’s blue-balled frustration reflecting Scorsese’s own irritation at his struggle to get financing for The Last Temptation of Christ. To better embody the character’s exhaustion and paranoia, Scorsese reportedly even requested Dunne abstain from sex and sleep while they filmed. And apparently the no-nut method worked, with Dunne’s Paul constantly exuding yuppy terror. In the end, After Hours is possibly the most outrageously nightmarish story about not getting laid you’ll ever see.