Although the premise lends itself to repetition and an underwhelming conclusion, Dead End is still an enjoyable example of low-budget filmmaking that smartly maintains a simple scope.
At the center of the film is a family on a Christmas Eve road trip that has occurred for the past 20 years. The self-important father decides to take a different route as opposed to the freeway path that annual tradition dictates. Since this is a horror film we’re watching, we know that this was a bad choice. Beginning with small occurrences and building with eerie tones, the film slowly escalates into an endless, horrifying night for the family. However, before the horror begins, the filmmakers wisely give us ample opportunity to get to know the characters. This is important because, by the end of the film, we realize that its primary purpose was a character study on the family as a whole, as well as the role each individual plays.
At the helm of the family are two experienced actors: Lin Shaye and Ray Wise. The mother and father’s bickering is fun to watch. One of my favorite scenes takes place when Shaye makes annoying noise as she drinks out of her water bottle. Wise glares at her and complains, to which she responds, “I can’t help it. It’s just the way I drink.” It’s simple, unexpected disputes that place their squabbling above the trite scenarios seen in countless films displaying a turbulent marital relationship. The two children, as well as the daughter’s long-time boyfriend, do not boast performances as interesting as the parents. Although they are passable, there are definitely a couple moments where inexperience becomes apparent in clichéd deliveries. As a whole, the filmmakers present a realistic, complex family that is forced to deal with decades of hidden issues on a single night.
As the family’s SUV hauls down the desolate road, the lack of other vehicles and signs of life become more apparent. The turning point comes when they spot a woman in white, carrying a child. Believing her to be a wandering accident victim, they try to help the woman by searching for a phone in an abandoned cabin. This woman turns out to be anything but a victim. Every time they encounter her, another person disappears. Without divulging too many details, I can say that the deaths are handled quite well. As opposed to focusing on gore or even fear, deaths are used to heighten the mystery of this isolated country road that they are trapped on.
In addition to supernatural happenings, the sanity of the family comes into question. The infinite blacktop stretches before them, making their quest seem futile. The crazy factor is executed particular well by Shaye, who made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. The best part is when she stuffs her face with potato chips and holiday pie until she pukes. In the midst of the obscure sightings of the woman in white, the tediousness of the endless road, and the deteriorating mental states, there is a remarkable amount of suspense and intrigue created from such a simple premise.
While the film has its share of moments that are obviously hindered by budgetary constraints and less-than-top-notch acting, the filmmakers were wise to maintain a simple scale for a movie that is primarily focused on the journey of its characters as opposed to fantastic events. I didn’t know what to expect from Dead End, and I’m certainly glad I gave it a chance because it is so different from the usual, more provocative horror fare that I’m accustomed to.