Dead End (2003)
★★ / ★★★★
It is Christmas Eve and the Harringtons are on their annual trip to spend the holiday with their extended family. But this time is a little different—while everyone sleeps, Frank (Ray Wise) decides to veer off the interstate and take the backroads. After a scare from an oncoming car, the Harringtons soon realize that they are lost. As they drive on a straight line for miles, there is nothing on the side of the road but trees… and a woman dressed in white, holding something. Frank pulls over to ask if the woman needed help.
“Dead End,” written and directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, is a horror-mystery with some dark humor but its energy and creativity is not sustained throughout. What results is a lopsided picture—very strong up until the halfway point but lukewarm at best as it reaches the climax. It offers solid performances, particularly from Ray Wise and Lin Shaye who play the bickering parents.
Some humorous dialogue is found here. Wise and Shaye approach the delivery of their lines almost like a dance—they hold their own and yet there is grace in their partnership and so we believe that their characters have been married for decades. Notice that some of the comments they have for one another are jokes that are clearly meant to annoy yet at the same time there is a sting embedded in these comments. It is almost as if they cannot help themselves because being silent around one another would mean they would have to deal with some of the more deeply hurtful things they keep secret.
The younger performers pale in comparison. In fact, I found them somewhat unbearable. Mick Cain and Alexandra Holden play siblings, but there is not one convincing moment that Richard and Marion really did grow up under the same roof. There are a few hints of generational gap in the script in an attempt to create some sort of substance in how they relate (or not relate) to one another, but—unlike Wise and Shaye—they share no partnership or bond, even a tenuous one.
There are no big scares but there are a handful of creepy moments. A baby carriage appearing in the middle of the road stands out. The matriarch warns that none of them should take the risk of going out and looking at what’s in there; they should simply drive the car around it. Meanwhile, the rebellious son thinks it would be funny to jump out of the vehicle to check it out. This scene and others like it—at least during the first half—work because the writer-directors take their time with beats and pauses. They have the acuity to deliver exactly what we expect at times and something we do not at all expect in other instances.
The ending is predictable because the foreshadowing is not subtle enough. The manner in which the foreshadowing is executed likens that of a novel aimed at tweens. More perceptive viewers are likely able to sit through the increasingly bizarre events and guess correctly what exactly is occurring. It takes away some of the enjoyment from the picture. There ought to have been more red herrings to keep us off-track.
“Dead End” offers some intrigue, eerie moments, humor, and solid lead performances, but it might have been stronger as a horror picture if the screenplay had gone though more revisions. Work is needed during the latter half—particularly in adding more genuine scares. Writer-directors Andrea and Canepa could have made the material more dynamic—a consistently beautiful dance between morbid dark humor and old-school road trip horror with a dash of “The Twilight Zone.”