Devin is out at night, stopping by a diner he’s eager to review for Yelp. The five-star joint just about to close, but the diner stays open for him, serving him a meal, courtesy of Chef Paul and server Rita, who seems to take an interest in Devin.
Yet as the meal moves forward, the night gets weirder and weirder, as Paul and Rita reveal their odd idiosyncrasies — and Devin takes on more than he bargains for.
Writer-director Khaled Ridgeway’s horror short fits into the recent, highly popular strand of socially engaged horror, where the genre norms and conventions — and the supreme entertainment value of thrill and suspense — are leveraged to explore the almost primal traumas of issues like racism, sexism and other systems of inequality and oppression.
These explorations aren’t subtle, but that’s the point in films like this: their intense emotional effects and imaginative audacity are meant to make viewers squirm about the cruel, cavalier and horrific ways society and history have historically treated Black bodies.
Like many genre films, the film has a masterful command of craft, able to imbue the surfaces and sounds of everyday Americana into something loaded with menace, slowly ratcheting up the tension and weirdness. Its strength is its ability to slowly but confidently create a pocket of a parallel universe that feels sealed-off and immune from the outside world: time seems to pass differently, and people act just a little off. The lurid nighttime cinematography, the off-kilter sound design and uncanny rhythms of its editing make certain details of the world acquire strange weight and significance, one that Devin seems blithely oblivious to at first, focused as he is on his meal and his phone.
Actor Yves Beneche plays the relatable point of normality for the audience with an easy affability, just a young Yelper in search of a good meal to review, while Tisha Terrasini Banker and Paul Mischeshin calibrate their performances wonderfully, at first seeming just a bit odd and eccentric. But as the film escalates its tension, they reveal just what makes this night diner so special.
With a clever combination of stylized craftsmanship and a willingness to hold nothing back, “Night Diner” subverts the beloved iconic symbol of the all-American diner, which often represents a humble, generally working-class place where communities gather in an egalitarian way, stopping for a respite before getting on with the business of life.
But “Night Diner” rips open the underbelly of this particular slice of Americana, showing the messy history and dark legacies that often undergird classic, seemingly innocuous institutions. The symbolism and impact aren’t subtle, but horror rarely is, instead choosing to parlay the feeling of being sick to our stomachs into thought-provoking critique — and a visceral understanding of how it feels to be brutalized and powerless in an incomprehensible world.