If there is one thing horror movies have taught me (and there are many, many things horror movies have taught me), it’s to never be the last person inside anywhere. It’s not necessarily about being the first person out, but definitely do enough cardio and be willing to trip folks so you’re not the last. The last person gets screwed. Always. Not in a fun way. I’d sign up for that. No, the last person is probably gonna die in some terrible way which involves mangling, torture, and God knows what else. That’s why you don’t do it. Unless you have to, of course.
Jessica Loren is a rookie cop on her first day on the job. Her father was a cop, but he was killed in the line of duty, so she has stepped up in the family business with the intent to honor him. Her mother isn’t so keen on this, but then whose mother would be? And for Officer Loren’s first day on the job, her assignment is to perform the final shift in a police station being decommissioned. 911 calls have been rerouted, gear has been pulled out, doors are locked; the only reason she is there is to let a HAZMAT team come in around 4am to collect evidence that is potentially problematic in a biohazard kind of way. Not like smallpox, but do you really want to handle somebody’s bloody jeans? No, you don’t, you don’t know where those jeans have been.
Unfortunately for Loren, she’s not entirely alone. There’s a homeless man who appears unresponsive to people that likes to wander the premises. There’s a possibly abused woman who likes to smoke near the station because it makes her feel safe. And then there’s something else, something much darker, that lurks in the station. Because, much like we’ve discovered in police departments around the country, the history at this station isn’t exactly all sunshine and roses. No, they had to deal with a violent cult that was really into murder and worshiping the original owner of Hell before Satan showed up. Yeah, these guys are a nasty bunch, and they think the Devil is too much of a goody goody to bother with. That’s how messed up they were, their cult may still be active, and their ghosts are definitely there to mess with the cops in a big way. And Loren unfortunately happens to be the last cop on the premises, so guess whose getting a full dose of ghost cult special?
I’ve stated time and again that I appreciate low budget with big heart, and director Anthony DiBlasi nails it here. Utilizing one location for the entirety of the film, going in heavy on the creep factor, often relying on camera tricks or sudden, bloody reveals, he manages to make an effective piece of work that at times feels like Jacob’s Ladder and Assault on Precinct 13 had a weird love child that is way too into the Manson family. DiBlasi is no stranger to horror, having produced and directed quite a few, and he showcases a deft hand. There are a few times where I felt like the film relied too much on jump scares, but that’s because they stood out after such an effective use of building creeping dread. Last Shift is at its best when it cuts back to show us suddenly open lockers, strangely discordant singing over police radios, and photographs suddenly appearing en masse on the floor. That’s not to say that jump scares are bad, because some of the ones here are spectacular. But if you give me a creepy scene involving a flashlight floating in the air when there is no one in the room able to hold it, well, I want more of that!
Of course, as great as excellent cinematography, editing, and the use of disturbing imagery can be to punctuate what is a building sense of unease, it’s going to need talent that can carry it, especially in a film which is driven by basically a single person. Enter Juliana Harkavy, our Officer Loren, who you may know more as Black Canary from the series Arrow. Harkavy didn’t have an enormous amount of experience specifically with horror when she went into Last Shift, but she had enough: credits on The Walking Dead, a part in the film House of Bodies, and over a decade of acting experience in a mixture of shorts, TV, and features in a variety of genres. Perhaps it’s this wide range of experience that set her up for success here, because she nails the performance as a woman in over her head, tough but green, and struggling with doing right by her father’s legacy as well as the right thing. Does she always make good choices? No, but Harkavy makes her choices seem believable, and that’s what matters more.
Of course, it helps that what few supporting cast there is also have previous experience with the director. The homeless man who wanders the station, for instance, is J. LaRose, whose credits include a couple of Saw films, REPO: The Genetic Opera, and The Devil’s Carnival, along with one of director DiBlasi’s earlier horror films, Cassadaga. Hank Stone, another cast member of Cassadaga, has a long history in the film industry including a range of genres. One of the cult women brought into the station, Sarah Sculco, was another Cassadaga alumnus. And Natalie Victoria, who plays our possible woman of the night enjoying her cigarette? She ended up married to the director, so yeah, I hope she knows him pretty well! Even the writer for Cassadaga has a bit part in Last Shift, so yeah, Harkavy had a full support network.
Last Shift is a testament to what can be done with a good location, great casting, and very little money. If you know how to build suspense, understand that creeping out an audience can be done subtly and effectively, and get that ratcheting up the scares can lead to a big, nasty payoff where you don’t have to explain absolutely everything and let the audience’s imagination run wild, then you can nail horror. Last Shift does exactly that, it nails horror. It’s movies like this that get me out of bed in the morning.