On Christmas Eve the Harrington family embarks on a journey to visit relatives for the holidays. Along the way they get lost and I mean really, really lost. Normal everyday reality seems to fly out their car window as one by one they succumb to a dark, deadly force that presents itself in the form of an ominous black automobile. Like a collaboration (or perhaps a collision) between EDWARD ALBEE and ROD STERLING, this Trojan horse of a film is misleadingly simple and masterfully manipulative.
One of DEAD END‘s greatest feats is how perfectly it captures the feeling and tone of a dream. More incredibly still is how it snares that moment during a dream when you realize that you are having an awful nightmare. Minimalistic, yet fused with countless symbols and layers of meaning, it masquerades as a routine journey when it’s anything but. As bizarre and borderline surreal as events become, it’s nearly impossible not to relate to the situation presented. Anyone who has ever taken a wrong turn or found themselves trapped in a day that never seems to end will find themselves on disturbingly familiar ground. The behavior of some of the characters may seem unlikely at first, but multiple viewings of the Harrington family’s ordeal iron out these wrinkles quite nicely. This is one movie where all the signs are present but are almost indecipherable upon your first viewing.
It is rare to find a modern horror film that hinges on the performances of its actors. Considering that DEAD END‘s action takes place in a limited environment, one weak link could knock over the whole house of cards. Yet all the players assembled here are remarkable and excel at playing against each other. There’s not much in way of special effects or explosive visuals, but I doubt you’ll miss them due to the actors’ highly entertaining turns. It’s not easy to shift gears from hysterically funny to nerve-rackingly creepy, but this group makes it look as easy as changing a radio station. Genre vets RAY WISE and LIN SHAYE both knock it out of the park as Dad and Mom Harington, and as their offspring MICK CAIN and ALEXANDRA HOLDEN are no slouches either. (HOLDEN has an excellent scene where she is required to scream up to the heavens and beg for, if not an answer, then at least some kind of mercy. Considering the comical vibe that DEAD END has been flirting with, the existential defeatism expressed is all the more disturbing.)
The behind the camera talent is equally adept. The direction and writing shared by JEAN-BAPTISTE ANDREA and FABRICE CANEPA is never pretentious or showy. When all the puzzle pieces are in place, you realize just how seamless it all is. Additionally, hats off to the almost subliminal editing and the ever persuasive use of sound. It is increasingly rare to find a film that is brave enough not to wrap itself in neon and underline and circle its every step. Rather than begging the audience to fall in love with it every five seconds, DEAD END challenges the audience to keep up with it.
If you are looking for holiday horror, but are not interested in having cymbals smashed against your ears for an hour and a half, DEAD END is just for you. Many movies may end up parking in the same garage as DEAD END, but few do such a wonderful job of earning their right to be there. If its final moments give you a frustrating sense of déjà vu, just remember it’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey. Genuinely funny, surprisingly haunting and ultimately moving, DEAD END should be spoken in the same breath as MULHOLLAND DRIVE and the seminal mind-screwer JACOB’S LADDER. It simply does a bang up job of reminding us once again that how we see events is governed more by personal perception than any universal concrete reality.