Dead End (2001) Movie Review

“Dead End”, a French production by French filmmakers with an all-American cast, is all geared toward “getting” the audience with a slick Twist Ending. So, knowing that, your only recourse is to sit through the whole thing trying to piece together the evidence and outguess the filmmakers before they can pull the Big Reveal. Of course it helps if the film doesn’t cheat; which, unfortunately, “Dead End” does. The narrative leaves little room for outguessing the film, which depending on rather you’re the type of person who likes to try to figure out the ending (which I am) or not, will greatly affect how you respond to the Twist Ending.

Ray Wise (“Jeepers Creepers 2”) stars as Frank, the patriarch of a bickering brood on a road trip to his mother-in-law’s for Christmas. In the car with Frank this long night is his wife Laura (Lin Shaye), son Richard, 20-something daughter Marion, and Marion’s boyfriend Brad. While everyone has dozed off during the long night trip, Frank has decided to take a back road, hoping to break the monotony of the trip and, one suspects, his life. As soon as they encounter a woman in white standing on the road with her baby, bad things hit the family hard and fast. And oh yeah, someone in a black car keeps showing up whenever someone dies…

Clocking in at a brisk 80 minutes, “Dead End” has absolutely no superfluous scenes. It’s a taut suspense thriller from beginning to end, employing all manner of gimmicks and tricks to “get” the audience. Half scary movie and half comedy, the movie spends its time making you laugh and jump at the same time. And surprisingly, it’s very good at both. Who knew a movie that had this much mojo going in the Scare Factor could also make you laugh so much? Most of the comedy comes courtesy of angst-ridden teen son Richard (Mick Cain), who as all angst-ridden teens are wont to do, is a real jerk throughout the film. At least, until he bites it.

Wise as the father and Alexandra Holden (“Wishcraft”) as daughter Marion give the movie’s best performances. Holden in particular is good, spending half of the movie being traumatized and the other half trying to keep the surviving family members alive, even as events spiral out of control, getting more and more surreal with each death. Wise is a champ, switching from comedy to horror with aplomb. The script is by co-directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, two young French filmmakers making their debuts with “Dead End”. They’ve done a fine job, but their wisest decision has to be casting Wise and Holden as the lynchpins of the movie. Weaker actors would have surely torpedoed the whole enterprise.

“Dead End” would work fabulously as a straight horror film had some of the comedy bits been trimmed; on the other side of the fence, it could have been a comedy farce if some of the more startling horror elements had been lifted. But as a combination of the two genres it’s terribly effective and vastly entertaining. Many of the funny situations come out of absurd moments where characters simply burst out with intimate confessions at the most inopportune moments. As the wife, Lin Shaye probably overplays a bit, and the script gives her too much to do in too little time, and as a result the character sometimes come across as too stylized.

The whole concept of getting lost in a back woods is old hat with fans of the genre, and it might be the only thing that makes “Dead End” seem less original than it actually is. The only thing missing, of course, is one of those Generic Inbred Backwoods Hillbillies that crop up in films of this genre so routinely. Although “Dead End” doesn’t look as if it’s operating on a big budget, the visuals are nevertheless impressive. The film takes place entirely in one lonely night on a single stretch of asphalt highway flanked by a sea of trees, and most of the scenes take place inside the car. Thankfully the film is working from a tight script that knows where it wants to go and how to get there, and it has good actors to pull it off.

If you’re wondering about the ending, you shouldn’t. As mentioned, the film really cheats when it comes to giving the audience an opportunity to guess the Big Reveal. You really can’t make a decent prediction with this movie, for the simple reason that there are very little hints that would make sense while watching the film. Although the death of each character does give some hints to the secret ending, it’s much too “hidden” to really qualify as clues. I.e. all the hints will work once the Twist Ending is revealed, but not before. Not that it should matter. In this case, getting to the end is the fun part.

For the record, my own reaction to the Big Reveal was…mild indifference. In fact, I contend that the film would have worked twice as well without the silly Twist Ending.

Jean-Baptiste Andrea, Fabrice Canepa (director) / Jean-Baptiste Andrea, Fabrice Canepa (screenplay)
CAST: Ray Wise …. Frank
Alexandra Holden …. Marion
Lin Shaye …. Laura
Mick Cain …. Richard
Amber Smith …. Lady in white
Billy Asher …. Brad

Buy Dead End on DVD