Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Motion Sickness Is the Least of Your Problems

A shorter than usual review of a better than average film:

Somewhere in the mid-levels of hell is an endless family road trip complete with tone-deaf sing-a-longs, backseat driving, and epic parental bickering sparked by minute issues such as someone having packed the wrong flavor of sugar wafers. While I don’t think the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolph Hitler will experience this painful, if not quite Salo-esque torture, such a place would most likely be reserved for sinners who deserve eternal punishment with minor glimmers of relief sparked by winning some rounds of 20 Questions or spotting a license plate from Alaska.
I’ve taken my share of vacations via the highway.
One of the great things about Dead End, a small festival veteran from 2003 that never quite found its audience, is that the film is fully aware hell is not just other people, but more specifically, your family after too many hours in a moving motor vehicle.

Quick Plot: It’s Christmas Eve on the road as the Harringtons make their way to mom (Lin Shaye, giving her all)’s family of gun and good liquor loving relatives. Daughter Marion (Alexandra Holden) is a psychologist with her boyfriend in tow and teenage son Richard is an obnoxiously horny and homophobic Marilyn Manson (not Branson) fan. Things take a turn when Dad takes the scenic route and comes upon a young woman toting a suspiciously quiet baby on a quiet and lonely open road. Mystery is in the winter air.

It doesn’t take long for bad things to happen. An ill-advised detour to an abandoned cabin leaves one passenger alone long enough to end up banging on the back window of a passing Rolls Royce, only to be discovered in a gooey and burned state icky enough to send a family member into inconvenient catatonia. Clearly, this holiday is on its way to being far worse than the time Dad drank too much eggnog and the kids gathered round to watch Jingle All the Way*

I rented Dead End on a whim due to the random discovery that it takes place on Christmas Eve. Following Cuento de Navidad , this is another refreshingly low profile pleasant surprise filled with interesting nastiness and a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. I was reminded slightly of The Signal ’s second chapter (minus the head-in-a-vice and blood-spattered helium tank), where black comedy seems to be banging on the door (or car windows) and sending tiny minions inside to twist a rather traditional horror narrative. 

Writer/directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa haven't made a masterpiece, but Dead End is a far more interesting ride than its bargain bin title and heard-it-before premise would lead you to believe. With solid performances, surprisingly effective jump scares, and a playfully wicked script, Dead End finds its own voice and delivers a fun enough 90 minutes that makes for a truly enjoyable alternative Christmas. Maybe next year I'll pair it with The Ref for a dysfunctional family double feature worthy of my eggnog toast.
High Points
Although each character doesn’t quite have the time for genuine in-depth development, it’s refreshing to see a family composed of normal, everyday people prone to selfishness, neuroticism, and a begrudging sense of familial love.
All the performances are marked by a nice and steady level of high energy, with Robocop’s way too cool Ray Wise standing out as the patriarch trying his best to save those he cares about.

Low Points
Perhaps it’s just that I’ve seen to many ghostly night-of-terror direct-to-DVD titles that utilize this type of ending, but the final explanation--even though it’s not quite it appears to be--feels like well-worn territory too tacked on for a rewarding finish

Similarly, the half-hearted attempt to toss in a haunted backstory so late in the film feels like a line of filler that doesn't really do anything to enrich the already engrossing narrative
Lessons Learned
Here’s a surefire relaxation technique taught across the nation by college baseball coaches: breathe in deeply through your nose. Now slowly let it out through your mouth. Done.
Always choose a Secret Santa with an NRA membership

In order to ease your sister out of shock, try to avoid confessing to murdering her pet hamster a few years back via such an unpleasant and unsanitary means as the kitchen microwave

Lab coats are so comfortable, many doctors wear them on the drive home.
While this isn’t hauntingly grim holiday horror along the lines of Inside or totally unique territory like Cuento de Navidad, Dead End is far more worthwhile than its low profile and dull title would have you believe. The mix of dark family humor with a standard horror setup makes for an experience that doesn’t quite take the direction you’d expect and in the modern age of remakes, teens in turmoil, and torture porn, it does its job with gusto, innovation, and a joyously off-kilter Christmas spirit.

*If I had the time I’d review this Arnold Schwarzenegger epic fail of 1996 because holy Christmas is this a terrifyingly bad film. I didn’t think the Action Star On the Decline period could get worse than Batman & Robin, but between Jake Lloyd’s practice rounds to destroy the Star Wars saga, Sinbad’s awful turn as an offensively disgruntled mailman (complete with a bomb scare plan), the wasting of Phil Hartman as an oily neighbor sexually harassing a married woman, and a horrifically commercial message at its heart, Jingle All the Way may be the most frightening Christmas movie of all time. Without question, my kids will be watching Billy Chapman hack his way through the naughty well before seeing the future governor of California punch a reindeer in the face.


  1. I very much am a fan of Dead End. I think it's got some genuinely creepy scenes. A couple of years ago I found myself having to detour off Hwy 2 (which can get desolate enough) in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the middle of the night (alone), and I couldn't get this damn movie out of my head for the entire detour. Thanks, Dead End!

  2. It's funny, there are so many highway horror films floating out there, but few really work anymore because I guess we've seen the story so many times. I think was more entertained than frightened by Dead End, but it definitely had some great jumps (the baby carriage) and effective eeriness.

    I suppose things could have been worse for you. As bad as it would be to be driving through no man's land all alone, something tells me tossing in a full carload of immediate family members would be far more horrifying!

  3. Luckily, I saw this movie before I watched all the crappy straight to videos with similar twist endings. I loved this and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I forgot that this movie takes place on Christmas Eve. Now I have another horror movie to add to my Christmas line up. Thanks!

  4. It's sort of like a more horror-centered version of The Ref, one of my other favorite non-genre xmas movies. Dead End is a truly refreshing film, but the twist has definitely been used before and after, most notably (for me, anyway) in a similar (but less interesting) little film called Reeker. Still, Dead End took me completely by surprise. Bland title and premise, but such playful and creepy execution.