Visuals / Camera
Pacing / Editing
Entertainment Value / X-Factor
Mood / Atmosphere
Dead End is a solid little film.
If you’re more than just a casual fan of horror films, you understand that the films you see won’t always kick your ass with originality. Sometimes it’s about taking a chance on something that looks familiar, but contains elements that give you confidence that perhaps it can overcome the feeling that you’ve heard a variation on this story before. Sure, you’re going to get burned occasionally — but if we don’t take a chance, we’ll never find those small gems, those diamonds in the rough that are so thrilling to unearth.
There’s a skill in creating art that doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but spins the hell out of it just the same. Sometimes that can be just what the doctor ordered, which leads me to Dead End, a French-American production that was released back in 2003 (that’s another endeavor horror freaks know well, the neverending search for good movies we simply haven’t gotten around to yet) that I finally checked out. I’m definitely glad I did.
The setup is as simple & straightforward as it gets: there’s a family taking a road trip for Christmas Eve. They take a shortcut and find themselves seemingly trapped on a long, eerie road through an isolated forest at night. Things go badly for everyone. That’s the whole movie. But again, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, and in the hands of writer/directors Jean-Baptise Andrea & Fabrice Canepa it certainly isn’t. Anyone who’s seen a horror film before (or, more pointedly, an episode of The Twilight Zone) should have a pretty good idea of what’s going on here. Not to belabor the point with unneccessary travel metaphors, but the fact remains that it’s not always about the road you take as much as it is the ride, the journey as much as the destination. That holds true with Dead End.
Counteracting the familiar plot and developments in the flick are a not-quite-rote script with some interesting detours (sorry, I promise I’ll stop), effective direction, and an engaged cast. The writing is, intermittently & surprisingly, rather funny and presents a well-done take on a spooky story that most of us have heard some version of around a campfire or the like. The direction, while not above a few stylistic touches simply for the sake of such, is mostly classical in nature and admirably restrained. The main draw of the film, and the reason it works as well as it does for me, is the cast. Firstly, Mick Cain as the son & Billy Asher as the daughter’s boyfriend are both fine, and Alexandra Holden does good work as the oldest child. That out of the way, let me shower praise on two genre vets who always, and I mean ALWAYS, deliver: Ray Wise and Lin Shaye as the parents. Fans are well aware that even when these two appear in projects that are beneath their talents, they don’t phone it in; essentially, they may occasionally be in bad movies, but they are never bad in them, and they continue providing quality performances here. I’m a huge fan of Wise, and he surely didn’t let me down here, but I’d have to single out Shaye as the flick’s MVP. She handles the different emotions of her character with seeming ease, illustrating her range as an actress (which I don’t think she gets enough credit for, frankly) while also managing to somehow be kinda hilarious as well.
Dead End is a solid little film. Its aims may not be toweringly high, but that makes it all the easier to hit the target, which it does with a minimum of fuss. The few moments of gore it does have are very welcome even if the movie has no intention of being a viciously violent bloodbath. It merely wants to creep you out, surprise you, and even make you laugh. It did all of those things for me as I watched it, and left me admiring how well it succeeded in being the flick it wanted to be.