Monday, August 27, 2018

Dead End (2003)

If you'd have told me this was an episode from the 1995-2002 run of The Outer Limits series I would have totally believed you. 

That's not meant in any way to disrespect Dead End - for one, I loved The Outer Limits! - but it's just that in its 1hr25min runtime it's so simple in premise and so restrained, almost coy in its gruesomeness, reminiscent of such TV-friendly horror back in the day. And it feels delightfully nineties, too, mainly due to daughter Marion's style (those highlights and that lilac palette!) and a passing mention of Marilyn Manson.

Alexandra Holden, Ray Wise as daughter and dad, Marion and Frank.

However, Dead End is indeed its own movie. Written and directed by French natives Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, it's technically a French movie, even though it was filmed in the US, and all dialogue spoken is in English by a majority American cast.

The plot: It's Christmas Eve, and the Harringtons are driving to visit family when dad Frank (Ray Wise, always a delight to watch) decides to take a shortcut. What they encounter as a result is actually the opposite of a "dead end" in the literal sense, as for the rest of the movie they find themselves on a seemingly neverending road through a forest.

In frightening succession, horrible, urban legend-worthy things start to happen: they pick up a woman in white, standing dazed at the roadside clutching her baby; Marion's boyfriend Brad is seen being driven off in a hearse (hammering at the rear window, clearly still very much alive and terrified); son/brother/horny brat Richard meets a sticky end, and they pass a sign for a town that seems perpetually unreachable. The road never turns - cue some really lovely shots of endless trees and their little station wagon trucking along - and yet they keep coming back to landmarks from earlier on.

When the family begins to get picked off, some of the remaining members have a hard time holding it together, and it's these scenes above anything else that I found unsettling. Genre pillar Lin Shaye as the mother makes your skin crawl as she grapples with what's going on, reverting to a childlike insanity that is at once so horrible and very darkly funny (see: eating an entire pie, saying she's fine and then a quick cut to her puking in the background of shot).

The moments of the Harringtons just struggling, arguing and trying to remain calm are written brilliantly. Coming from a family not without its own dysfunction, I really enjoyed the dynamic of underlying love with a sheen of passive aggressive and irritated attitude. Just because you are all facing certain death together doesn't mean you're all suddenly going to get along!

I want to call this one "quirky" but I mean that in the best way. It's so odd at times but it all works together to make a solid, dark, entertaining film, right through to its "shock" ending - which also feels quite television script-y. Again, not a complaint! 

It's streaming on Shudder right now so check it out - and make sure to watch to the end of the credits.

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