‘Night Shift’ Offers Bates Motel-Brand Chills

Indie thriller packs slick scares, atmosphere and a creepy sense of the unknown

The Coens. The Russos. The Farrellys. The Duplasses. The Safdies.

The Chinas?

No, Paul and Benjamin China aren’t in the rarified air of those famous directorial duos. Not even close.

Still, the China Brothers’ indie debut, “Night Shift,” is so confident in its storytelling that you can’t help but ask a simple question.

What else do they have up their sleeves?

Night Shift | Official Trailer

A troubled woman named Gwen (Phoebe Tonkin) arrives at a just-north-of-seedy motel to tackle the night shift. She’ll be paid in cash and work alone until owner Teddy (Lamorne Morris) relieves her at 7 a.m. 

What could go wrong? Plenty, of course. This is a horror movie, after all.

Gwen has troubling hallucinations of undead customers lurking on the grounds. A sedan keeps driving slowly past the motel as if its driver is casing the joint.

Plus, Gwen’s state of mind appears a bit wobbly long before things start going bump in the night.

If you think you know where this is going, you’re probably wrong.

The China Brothers take their time setting the story in motion, relying on strong performances to lay the necessary groundwork. Morris doesn’t get much screen time, but he judiciously uses it to create a character we know all too well.

Awkward. Kind. Untethered by certain business realities.

Teddy’s initial chat with Gwen is delightful, the kind of sly exchange that lacks a single horror trope. Unless you consider a Bates Motel-style stuffed animal or three.


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Tonkin is just as good as our beleaguered heroine. She’s resourceful but not dumb, eager to make the best of an awful situation until things spin out of control.

Madison Hu co-stars as Alice, a motel guest who becomes Gwen’s de facto ally. Their scenes add another intriguing layer to the story.

The Brothers’ camera work is never flashy, just self-assured. They know how to build tension and nudge the proper elements in motion without drawing attention to themselves. “Night Shift” feels like a movie made by industry veterans who care more about the finished product than cinematic gimmicks.

And one scare in particular is a corker.

The introduction of two wealthy snobs (Patrick Fischler, Lauren Bowles) into the motel is a rare misstep. It’s meant for comic relief, but their appearance proves more of a distraction.

Otherwise, “Night Shift” is the kind of indie horror treat that proves how resourceful, and nimble, the genre can be in the right hands.

HiT or Miss: “Night Shift” delivers smart scares, a delicious twist and the kind of assured performances that keep up engaged from start to finish.


  1. Lamorne Morris is one of those actors who I’m always happy to see pop up in something. I think he’s great.

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