Countdown to Halloween: Dead End (2003)

Netflix lists Dead End (2003) as a French film, so when I starting watching it, I figured it would, you know, be in French. It is not. And yet, it has a very French sensibility to it. It’s very Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit; very existential, and that’s a tremendously good thing.

Written and directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, the horror/mystery/thriller takes place on Christmas Eve. The Harringtons – dad, Frank (Ray Wise); mom, Laura (Lin Shaye); son, Richard (Mick Cain); daughter, Marion (Alexandra Holden); and her boyfriend, Brad (Billy Asher) – are in the car, loaded down with presents, and on their way to celebrate the holiday with Laura’s family. But there’s a problem. For the first time in 20 years, Frank has decided to take another route. Rather than take the interstate, he’s taken a desolate, side road that seems to go on and on and on. They are lost. Because it’s nighttime and the drive is monotonous, Frank nods off at the wheel, resulting in a near crash with an oncoming car. And then, things become very strange. During the course of their evening, they encounter a mysterious Lady in White (Amber Smith) who is holding a baby, an old ranger shack filled with skulls and animal skins, and a menacing black car with no driver. But that’s not the worst of it. The mysterious forces at work have a homicidal bent, and they begin bumping off the holiday travelers one by one. What’s going on, and will the survivors ever reach the elusive town of Marcott?

I can’t really remember why I added this film to my Netflix queue, although I’m sure it had a lot to do with Wise’s involvement. I’ve loved him since he played the sinister, and very off, Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks, and next to Tyler Labine, he was the best thing that the short-lived TV series Reaper had going for it. (He plays the Devil.) He’s also memorable in Jeepers Creepers II, and the thousand of other films/TV shows in which he’s had appearances. I used to think that Ron Perlman was the busiest man in Hollywood; I think Wise has given him some tough competition for that title. (He has 14 projects in various stages of completion.) So, it was probably Wise or because I really do love my French horror films. Whatever the reason, I’m very glad that I took on chance on Dead End. It has a lot going for it.

First, the acting is top notch. Wise is effortless in portraying a man who finds himself in an increasingly absurd situation. How can a road just go on forever? And he is perfectly matched by Shaye, who played the psychic in Insidious (2010). Together, these two actors provide their audience with 85-minutes of pure entertainment. Cain is supposed to be an irritating git, and he more than fulfills that part of his contract. Sometimes he is funny, but mostly you can’t wait for him to die. Holden, who used to be on Friday Night Lights, has some good rapport with Wise, particularly toward the end of the film.

Second, the script is great. The writers have obviously been trapped in the car with their families during the holidays, because, boy, do some of these conversations ring true. Sometimes the film is funny, and sometimes, particularly during the killings, it is gruesome. Probably because of budgetary restrictions, the corpses aren’t shown in all of their gory details, but that doesn’t stop these moments from making you wince. One sequence, in particular, involves a cell phone that has a severed ear, still with the earring in it, hanging from the antennae. Eww. Dead End can also make you uneasy, and that’s also good news.

Dead End is one of the best small-budgeted horror films that I’ve seen in a long time. So to recap, it’s well-acted, has a great script that is funny, creepy and a bit heartfelt; and it’s intelligent. When it finished, I wondered if it had started life as a play, because it would translate well to the stage. If you enjoy a bit of French existentialism in your life, definitely check out Dead End.

Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films, and covering the entertainment industry, for more than a decade. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and anime. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.

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