(You too can send me down a road of infinite horror and despair if you are so good as to purchase my book Son Of Danse Macabre on your Kindle Or Nook and send me photo)
Dead End starts off as unpromisingly as any horror film I’ve ever seen.
The opening fifteen minutes of the film feel oddly tone deaf, all the characters unpleasant to one degree or another. The dialogue strange and stilted filled with Marylin Manson jokes that were to be dated even ten years ago when the film was made and a surprisingly large percentage of the dialogue given over to lame, though particularly ugly, gay jokes made by the requisite asshole teen. The writing on the characters is lazy shorthand and their actions unmotivated. It all just a bit off, (perhaps it can be blamed on a French director handling an English speaking cast). When people complain about characters making stupid decisions in horror films this is what they’re talking about, within the first ten minutes of the film the family in Dead End have left the interstate in exchange for an ominous country road, picked up a strange woman carrying an oddly motionless baby (that no one bothers to check or even take a passing glance at), abandoned their grown daughter by the side of said dark country road, stopped at a lightless shack with hatchets on the walls and wandered off into the dark woods to masturbate (really).
Maybe that’s why the film was able to creep up on me so effectively. Because just as I was through dismissing Dead End the damndest thing happened, the movie began to work. On the surface nothing much changes, the characters are still written stiffly, and behave unbelievably. But their disturbingly offkilter actions, the monotonous, repetitive imagery, along with a few moments of genuine unpredictability and good old fashioned scares creates an atmosphere of real dread. Blame low expectations, blame the insomnia I’ve been dealing with for the past week, but I have to admit that Dead End really started to unnerve me as it went on.
Dead End follows the Harrington family on their way to Christmas dinner. The father (played by Ray Wise) decides to take a shortcut, onto a dark deserted country road. It soon becomes evident that something is very wrong. The road continues on a repetitive course, traveling though an apparently never ending stretch of woods. They stop and pick up a hitchhiker who soon vanishes, after apparently killing and mutilating the grown daughter’s boyfriend. Desperate for help the group continues driving trying to reach the town of Millcot which despite the signs never seems to get any closer.
One by one the characters are picked off, spirited away by an ominous black car, only to be found later in various gruesome states of disrepair. The radio and their cellphones are filled with bursts of white noise and the crying of infants, the forest filled with odd shapes that one of them claims to be dead friends. As their numbers dwindle and they begin to crack under the pressure things, long buried secrets are unveiled and the situation grows steadily worse.
You’ve probably got a pretty good idea where this is going (and if you don’t consider that Dead End was made in 2003 when the term Shyamalanesque could still be construed as a compliment) , as they say you get three guesses and the first two don’t count about the nature of the Harrington’s plight.
Which brings me back to what’s so strange about the film, its not as I've said, as if any of these flaws go away. Ray Wise, and Lin Shaye are both talented character actors but even they stumble around some of the awkward dialogue they are forced to say. The film remains predictable, familiar and clumsily written, but it works anyway. At just under eighty minutes the film still manages to feel like an act of endurance (in a good way). The sheer isolation of its characters, the maddening monotony of the dark woods through which they travel, the utter hopelessness of their situation, the inherent awful tension of having a family member go mad, the cumulative effect of it is all disconcertingly eerie.
For all of director Jean Baptiste Andrea’s clumsiness with actors he manages he does know how to stage a sequence. The moment where the first body is discovered is very well handled, suggesting much and showing just the right amount of graphic detail to give you a full unpleasant picture of what has happened. Andrea knows how to stage a scene, time a jump scare, or unveil an unsettling detail just right for maximum impact.
Of course on his way out the door his worst instincts reassert themselves, unnecessarily shoving in as much explanation as possible on its way out the door, including unnecessarily giving a rib nudging “Eh see what I did there?” wink, ruining one of the few subtle details that the movie managed to slip in by accident.
Look I’ll level here, I have absolutely no idea whether I can honestly recommend Dead End. I’m baffled. There are large stretches of it that are unambiguously flat out bad. Yet I have to be honest that the film worked on me, and made me as genuinely uncomfortable as any horror film in memory. Whether the film would work on me again with the very specific set of circumstances that have been the last couple of weeks (not to bore anyone with details but woooboy) I cannot say. It’s a conundrum.