Dead End (2003)
I added 2003′s Dead End to my Netflix Watch Instantly queue on little more than impulse, but I’m glad I did, because I think I discovered a lost gem. It’s a small-scale supernatural horror movie that starts strong and carries an unsettling atmosphere throughout the whole runtime, and well worth a watch for anyone who just wants to be spooked.
It’s Christmas Eve, present day, USA, on a winding, wooded backroad somewhere in an unnamed state. Fifty-something grouch Frank Harrington (Ray Wise) is at the wheel of his elderly station wagon, transporting the whole family to his mother-in-law’s for Christmas dinner. His wife Laura (Lin Shaye) is riding shotgun, and staring at the backs of their heads for the whole trip are their college student daughter Marion (Alexandra Holden), their surly teenage son Richard (Mick Cain) and Marion’s clean-cut boyfriend Brad (Billy Asher). Frank, bored with the highway he’s driven for the last twenty years, has made a unilateral decision to try an alternate route instead, and by the time we join them the sun has already set, Laura is nagging, Marion is carsick, Richard and Brad are at each other’s throats, and the last thing Frank is willing to do is admit that he doesn’t know where they are. So it’s a pretty ordinary holiday scenario, but then they spot a woman (Amber Smith) in a white dress walking through the woods, clutching a swaddled baby to her chest, and shortly after that things get pretty dreadful for the hapless Harringtons. As the circumstances worsen, tempers flare, secrets emerge, sanity is abandoned and the body count rises.
Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa wrote and directed the film, and although they don’t break away from horror cliches, they do succeed in telling their story with both deftness and confidence. The atmosphere, as I said before, is consistently creepy–the narrow, unlit road helps a lot–and the tension builds at a steady pace, punctuated by moments of pulse-racing gore. It’s all very European, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering it’s a French-American co-production. Andrea and Canepa get a lot of mileage out of spooky imagery like an old-fashioned baby carriage in the middle of the road, and an ominous black hearse that always seems to show up just when things are about to get bad. And yet it’s not overwhelmingly gloomy, as the tension is lightened with just a little bit of humor, including a few well timed Gilligan cuts.
Since this isn’t a big-budget splatterfest, the bulk of the movie’s weight rests on the shoulders of its small but capable cast, led by veteran actor Ray Wise. He gives a solid and believable performance as a middle-class patriarch, proud of his accomplishments (meager though they might be) and unwilling to show weakness even as reality breaks down around him. Everyone else reveals hidden depths as well, even Richard, who turns out to be more resourceful and insightful than we might expect, whereas in a lesser movie a snarky teenager would do nothing but take up space while we rooted for him to die.
Dead End has its flaws, of course. If you’re the type who demands mindbending puzzles in your movies, you’ll probably want to stay away, as any genre-savvy viewer will figure out the twist ten minutes in. There’s also a mid-credits stinger scene that tries to add one final fillip of mystery, but instead just comes across as cliched and meaningless. But even so, I’ll argue that the good outweighs the bad and recommend this one. The tension and atmosphere make the movie worth watching, and there are a couple of scenes that will stick with you for days. Take Dead End for a ride. You won’t regret it.