12/1/11

Dead End (2003): Over The Hills and Through the Woods to Grandmother's House We Die

There are many horrors associated with the holiday season. There's killer elves and ax wielding Santas, endless lines in the stores, the traffic on the roads, or the terror of trying to mail something. That's not to mention the constant ringing of bells, the endless din of carols rerecorded by a bevy of today's pop stars, and the barrage of  weak, uninspired television specials that premiere year after year. The biggest horror for most people may well be one of the holiday's main occasions, the family gathering. It's an event that is often fraught with mysterious relations, long distance travel to keep feuding relatives separated, and, if you're really lucky, someone will get drunk and start a fight. Hmm, maybe I'm just talking about The Lair's last office party. At some point in December it all runs together in a Nog fueled haze. Anyhow, for the characters in today's film,  the horror isn't in the holiday gathering; it's in the getting there that turns into a massive Dead End.

The Harrington family, father Frank (Ray Wise), mother Laura (Lin Shayne), brother Richard (Mick Caine), sister Marion (Alexandra Holden) and her boyfriend Billy (Brad Miller), are on their way to Grandma Harrington's house on Christmas Eve. Driving late at night, Frank decides to take a shortcut to keep himself awake and interested in driving. Instead, Frank falls asleep at the wheel only to be jolted awake by Marion seconds before they would have had a head on collision. While recovering from the shock, Frank sees a woman in white standing along the road with a baby, and in the spirit of the season, picks her up. Things really start going bad from there, the woman in white is carrying a dead baby, Billy disappears and shows back up as a heap of bones and flesh on the asphalt, and no matter how far or fast they drive they can't seem to get anywhere. Trapped in an endless forest on a lonely road, the family is picked off one by one, and their only suspect is the woman in white and the driver-less black hearse that takes each of them away.

It's going to be a little tricky discussing Dead End without talking about the film's last five minutes. In those 300 seconds, everything that has happened in the film feels like it should be looked at differently. Then, in the credits, a short clip realigns the film once more. As I don't want to spoil the film, I won't get any more specific, but I will say that the first ending pissed me off and the second confused me. Now to go back to the main portion of the film. Clearly directors Fabrice Canepa and Jean-Babtiste Andrea wanted to say something about the horrors of family in the context of people getting mysteriously mutilated. Dad turns out to have been a cheater, as does Mom (even the paternity of one of the kids comes into question). Richard is a pothead who can't stop jerking off even on the way to Grandma's. Marion is pregnant. Dad turns violent. Mom loses her mind. You know, Christmas.

The plot of the film is so basic that Dead End really is an actor's film. With only three of four locales in the film, with the majority of time spent in their SUV, there's little other than the performances to watch. Thankfully, they are worth watching. Wise, who I always love (especially his turn as Satan on Reaper), is pitch perfect. Wise's Frank goes from irritable to emotional to all the way to flat out crazy, and every step along the way. There's a ton of dark humor in the film, and Mick Caine's Richard provides much of the smirking laughs. When his character leaves the action, there's a hole the film never quite fills.Veteran actress Lin Shayne, who many will instantly remember as the landlady from Kingpin, has had a varied career and will soon play Eleanor Roosevelt in FDR: American Badass! (starring Barry Bostwick as the titular badass and, yep, Ray Wise as Gen. MacArthur) In Dead End she plays the repressed wife who harbors an awful secret perfectly, and that's more than  can be said of the film's weak link Alexandra Holden. When her character goes catatonic, I just didn't buy it. Especially with the path her character takes later in the film. Knowing the ending it makes a bit more sense, but not enough upon reflection.

That's really what troubles me about Dead End. It's not a film that can be taken on surface value, but then the film makers chose to change what it might mean in retrospect not once, but twice, and neither time is ultimately satisfying. While Dead End is well acted on the whole, it lacks an emotional punch at the end to bring it all together. While the film comes in like a lion, it goes out squeaking around for cheese. As a Christmas adjacent film (I hesitate to call it related. Die Hard has more holiday references), it does examine a portion of the holidays that often gets ignored in the horror genre. The only films I could compare it to are the 2008 French film A Christmas Tale and the 1995 Thanksgiving themed Home for the Holidays, but with more gore, less drama, yet the same amount of familial dysfunction.  So the next time you're dreading the ride to a holiday gathering, look at it this way, the chances are you wont get caught up in a supernatural time vortex where everyone dies... probably. You might wish it, but just like Dead End, it's not as fun as it looks.

Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. I kind of hate these "they were dead the whole time" movies, but I really enjoyed this one, for some reason. Probably because I low to no expectations for it going in. As you said, the acting was pretty stellar and the ending kinda makes you shrug. I actually thought the Supernatural episode Roadkill did this same idea a little better.

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  2. I actually love this movie, perhaps because I rented it with no expectation back when I aw just trying to watch a lot if holiday horror. I think some if the darker scenes are genuinely haunting in a way I hadn't quite seen before, and the family hell is hilarious. As for the end (SPOILER) the dead the whole time thing has gotten old, but I loved the note, which somehow meant everything they went through DID matter, as if it was their one last chance.

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  3. watched it not too ago. pretty effective, strange film.

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  4. Horrible!!! Awful!!! I can't understand this film is considered so good.

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