Directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea & Fabrice Canepa
Starring: Ray Wise, Alexandra Holden, Lin Shaye
Lions Gate Entertainment
When I watch horror movies, I like to play a game: how many times can this movie make me jump? I scan the negative space for lurking shadows and subliminal flashes – the usual tricks. So when a horror movie pulls a classic make-you-jump, and yet I still jump, I am pretty impressed.
And that’s what French director Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa’s 2003 horror film Dead End does so well. Dead End is classic family horror; the plot simple – family driving to grandma’s house on Christmas Eve gets stuck in an endless loop and encounter horrors along the way. These horrors not only emerge as outside threats, but also from the dynamic of the family itself. And what better time and place to explore the psychological dynamics of family than when confined in a car driving to grandma’s house on Christmas Eve? The premise is so absurdly simple and so often sentimentalized that it works beautifully.
The family in question is portrayed by Alexandra Holden (Marion – the daughter), Laura Palmer’s Dad (Frank – the patriarch), Lin Shaye (Laura – the darkly comical matriarch), and Mick Cain (Richard – the obnoxious teenage son). They, along with Marion’s boyfriend Brad, set out on the annual pilgrimage to Grandma’s house, but Laura Palmer’s Dad, experiencing a crisis of white masculinity, decides to mix it up and take the backroads. Well, he will certainly learn his lesson for that!
Laura Palmer’s Dad starts to fall asleep at the wheel because he refuses to let anyone else drive (e.g. masculine crisis) and nearly collides with an oncoming vehicle. The station wagon veers off the road. Everyone is okay, and they get back on the road, and then shit starts to get weird.
Of course, this is a family stuck in a car together so there’s general grumpiness. Marion is experiencing car sickness. Laura Palmer’s Dad refuses to let anyone else drive. Richard keeps making homophobic remarks about Brad, and Laura is just trying to make everyone get along. Laura encourages the family to start singing “Jingle Bells,” and Ray Wise’s voice is smokey and silky. Then Laura Palmer’s Dad notices a woman in white (Amber Smith) holding a baby on the side of the road.
They pull over and offer her assistance. She has a noticeable gash on her forehead and is mute with shock. Of course, we know in horror films that women dressed all in white and carrying around babies is never, ever a good sign.
They try to call the police; they can’t get a signal. Recalling that they passed a ranger’s station earlier, they decide to drive back down the road to it. So everyone can fit in the car, Marion volunteers to walk the short distance.
Once they find the station which looks like a small tool shed, the matriarch and patriarch find axes and other murder weapons lining the wall. Richard decides to go out in the woods so he can jerk off to the nudie pic he carries around in his back pocket. Of the entire cast, it’s Richard that comes off the most stale. All of the family members represent certain familial stereotypes – Marion, the responsible adult daughter; Frank, the hard-headed patriarch who frequently talks down to his wife; Laura, the matriarch just trying to ease the tension; and Richard, the horny, sarcastic teenager. The first three actors lend a humanity to their roles, but Richard comes off as a caricature of the obnoxious teenage boy. (That could also have to do with the fact that the actor playing him is clearly in his mid 20s.)
Brad remains in the car with the woman and baby. He keeps trying to prod her into conversation, and she finally reveals that the baby’s name is Amy, and would he like to hold her? Brad notices how strangely the baby is bundled. When he comments on it, the woman in white smiles and reveals the baby is dead. We catch a quick glimpse of a bloodied mess behind the blanket, and Brad begins screaming. When everyone returns to the parked car, Brad and the woman are missing.
Marion, still walking, sees a car coming along the road. It’s a hearse, and as it passes by, Marion catches a glimpse of Brad pressed in terror against the back window. She finds the rest of her family, and they tear off after the hearse, but something in the middle of the road thwarts them.
Not much is revealed to the viewer during this scene. All we see is the horror on the faces of the family as they look down on whatever is lying in the middle of the road. Marion passes out. It’s Brad. Laura Palmer’s Dad tries to use a stick to pry Brad’s cell phone off of his body. Eventually, Richard pries the phone away as Brad’s ear dangles off of it. This is the most the viewer sees regarding Brad’s demise. The camera angle is from the position of Brad’s corpse; the viewer in the position of the mutilated corpse.
Richard calls the police, but the call is intercepted by someone pleading for help. The family gets back in the car and starts driving again.
The car scenes are tight and claustrophobic, and I found myself constantly searching the negative space for glimpses of creepies, or the Lady in White. These scenes are cut with aerial shots of the long trail of road running through the dense forest. It’s beautiful and eerie with the light refracting and creating shades of navy and purple in the night sky. It feels like a breather from the car scenes, but the density of the forest, the haunting choral music, and the dawning realization that the family is on an endless stretch of road only alleviates the claustrophobia for so long.
As they continue to drive, they come upon a pram in the middle of the road. It’s one of those old-fashioned, black prams:
It all feels very Rosemary’s Baby – the terror of the womb! Richard gets out and pushes the pram out of the way, but when the family turns their back, the pram returns. Laura Palmer’s Dad shoves the pram out of the way, and they start driving again. They try to turn on the radio, but all they hear is echoey baby cries. The family starts to fall apart. Marion reveals she’s pregnant. (Notably, when Marion was walking on the road earlier, she was practicing her break-up speech for Brad.) Richard reveals he smokes pot. It finally dawns on me that Marion played Elizabeth, Ross’ college-aged girlfriend, on Friends. The one whose Dad is Bruce Willis.
They stop again, and Richard wonders off to light up a joint which, I mean why not at this point? Of course, he takes one hit and is like super high. I would like to know who is dealer is.
Then the Lady in White shows up. She approaches Richard and they start making out. She bites his bottom lip off. She strips off her dress. Richard begins to scream. End scene.
The hearse comes rolling by again, slow and creeping. Richard is in the back. The rest of the family follows in their car, and once again, find a body in the middle of the road. This time it’s Richard. All we see is his arm, held straight up, his skin red and raw. Laura goes into shock and starts blabbering on about how Richard is not Frank’s son. Laura Palmer’s Dad insists it’s the shock. They cannot bear to leave Richard’s body behind so they pack him up in the back of the station wagon.
Laura Palmer’s Dad unwraps the shotgun which was supposed to be a present for Laura’s (not the Palmer) gunfreak brother. Laura, still in shock, proceeds to clean off the entire chocolate pumpkin pie she made for Christmas Eve dinner in a darkly comical scene.
They pull over again. Laura starts playing with the shotgun and winds up shooting Frank in the leg. Marion doctors his leg up, and they proceed to driving. Earlier they saw a sign for “Marcott.” They keep driving thinking they will get there, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they are in some sort of time warp. Laura Palmer’s Dad still insists on driving.
Laura is quite chirper in her shock and prattles on about Richard’s “real” dad Allen. She then starts waving at the people she sees in the woods. Lin Shaye is excellent portraying the slow demise of Laura’s sanity. She brings a much needed comic relief to the scenes, but one that is deeply disturbing. Laura asks Frank to stop so she can say hi to her dead forest friends. Frank refuses so she throws herself out of the moving car.
Frank pulls over, but Laura is nowhere to be found. Then the hearse arrives. Marion and Frank know what’s coming so they decide to disrupt the narrative. Frank grabs the shotgun and fires at the hearse. The car stops then proceeds to roll backwards. Laura gets dropped off. She appears to be beat-up, but okay. That is until she turns around to reveal her brain showing from the open wound on the back of her skull. She begins to touch her brain and wavers somewhere between shock and orgasm – again, delivered with excellent comedic timing. This is the most graphic scene in the entire movie. The gore is used well in this film – never oversaturated to where it no longer shocks or disturbs.
Marion realizes that every time they stop, someone dies. She insists they keep driving so they put Laura’s body in the backseat, and finally, Marion is shown at the wheel and continues to assume more agency. She confiscates the hooch that an increasingly desperate Frank keeps throwing back and consoles her father about admitting weakness. When the car runs out of gas, she comes up with the idea that they need to walk through the woods because the road is taking them nowhere. However, they wind up back at the car.
They find the same ranger station. While Frank is in the ranger station, he encounters the Lady in White. Marion comes in and sees nothing there. An inebriated Frank then begins to threaten Marion. He assaults her and knocks her out. Realizing what he’s done, he puts the now unconscious Marion in the car. He then spies the Lady in White walking into the woods. He grabs the shotgun and proceeds after her. The camera stays on the same spot, and you hear Frank’s desperate threats and shots fired. Eventually, a slash is heard. We know he’s dead.
Marion wakes up in the car. A shadow is darting and lurking around the car. It’s freaky as fuck. She tries to start the car, but it’s out of fuel so she has to get out and walk. Blood oozes from the trees onto her. At this point, Marion is ready to just end this whole thing. As she is walking along the road, she comes across four body bags and finds her father in the last one. Then the hearse rolls up and comes to a stop. The Lady in White shows up and reveals “he’s not here for you.”
Marion wakes up in a hospital bed. This feels cheap. The ending provides a twist in the vein of of the many “was it real”/”was it not real” endings of the Twilight Zone, but it mostly falls flat. Still, you should give Dead End a watch, especially if you will be finding yourself in a similar situation this holiday season. It’s good classic horror with an excellent cast.