Christmas is a time for family. For better or worse. And the time spent travelling from family event to family event accounts for much of the worst parts. Snowy and slippery roads, traffic, arguing siblings, and shortcuts that inevitably aren’t any shorter than recommended route. French horror movie – with an all-American cast – Dead End exploited the Christmas Eve family drive for a mix of dark humour and a Twilight Zone-esque mystery. Though critics seemed to like it, the small thriller
It’s Christmas Eve and Frank Harrington is driving his family to his sister-in-law’s for a holiday dinner. As Frank momentarily drifts to sleep he nearly collides with an oncoming car. The close calls jolts his family – wife, Laura, son and daughter Richard and Marion, and Marion’s boyfriend, Brad – awake where they find themselves on an unfamiliar road. Bored with the usual route, Frank inexplicably chose a ‘short cut’ through dense woods. But an encounter with a mysterious woman in white sets the Harrington family on a never-ending hellish ride. No matter how far they drive, the Harrington’s may never escape.
Dead End Stretches, But Doesn’t Break, Its Simple Premise
For most of its hour and 25 minutes, Dead End makes the most of its Twilight Zone-inspired story. Writer and directors Jean Baptitse-Andrea and Fabrice Canepa waste little time introducing us to the bickering Harrington family and setting the central plot in motion. Dead End has a simple premise that benefits from its small budget – there’s a decent help of atmosphere early in the proceedings. In addition, Baptiste-Andrea and Canepa handle the movie’s more traditional horror elements quite well. Most of the movie’s violence occurs offscreen with the aftermath only suggested. With the emphasis more firmly placed on mood and mystery, Dead End only has one or two effective jumps.
If the lady in white and mysterious hearse lend some occasional creeps to the thriller, they’re equally heavy-handed from a story-telling perspective.
How much one enjoys Dead End will in part depend on the mystery driving its story. While it mostly works, the Harrington’s trip down a never-ending stretch of dark, empty road does feel like a long anthology segment. If the lady in white and mysterious hearse lend some occasional creeps to the thriller, they’re equally heavy-handed from a storytelling perspective. Seasoned horror fans should have the movie’s twist largely figured out before its official reveal. By and large, however, it’s a satisfying twist that nearly derails when Dead End pushes its own luck with one last unnecessary moment.
Dead End’s Middle Act Dragged Down By Campy Tone
Where Dead End may also lose some viewers is its balance of dark humour and horror. Like its basic mystery, Baptiste-Andrea and Canepa are pretty transparent with their farcical take on family dynamics. Anyone who’s taken a long car ride with parents and/or siblings will be able to relate. Nevertheless, once Dead End introduces more horror elements the filmmakers allow the humor to go off the rails. With each passing crisis, the movie’s tone veers into almost unintentional silliness. The middle act suffers from tonal inconsistency that nearly rights itself in the climax. Too bad it’s hard to be scared when you’re rolling your eyes.
With each passing crisis, the movie’s tone veers into almost unintentional silliness.
Dead End’s cast and performances both help and hurt its own cause. Both Lin Shaye (Insidious: The Last Key, The Final Wish) Ray Wise lend familiar faces and experienced performances to the low-budget thriller. And Shaye and Wise have a track record of good supporting performances. But, as much as it pains to write it, their broad performances are a big part of Dead End’s problem. Keep in mind, the blame most likely lies with Baptiste-Andrea and Canepa who take the movie’s tone in a jarring direction. Regardless, Shaye chews the scenery and Wise abruptly joins her. It’s simply too much camp for a movie so reliant on its atmosphere and mystery.
Dead End A Watchable Thriller In Spite Of Its Limitations
Yes, Dead End’s campy tone, broad performances, and heavy-handed mystery should sink it. Somehow the movie overcomes these limitations to become eclectic viewing. There’s just enough atmosphere and interesting enough stuff going on here to make it worth watching. In fact, at times, the campy tone almost works, giving Dead End the same idiosyncratic vibe that worked for a lot of early 70s low-budget horror. All in all, it’s a unique entry in the Christmas horror subgenre.