Directors/Screenplay – Jean-Baptiste Andrea & Fabrice Canepa, Producers – James Huth & Gabriella Stollenwerck, Photography – Alexander Buono, Music – Greg De Belles, Makeup Effects – TC Thecla Luisi, Production Design – Bryce Holthousen. Production Company – Captain Movies/Sagittaire Films/Studio Canal Plus/3.2.1 Films.
Ray Wise (Frank Harrington), Lin Shaye (Laura Harrington), Alexandra Holden (Marion Harrington), Mick Cain (Richard Harrington), Billy Asher (Brad Miller), Amber Smith (The Lady in White)
Husband and wife Frank and Laura Harrington are driving to her family’s place for Christmas Dinner, along with their teenage son Richard, their daughter Marion, a psych major, and her boyfriend Brad. Frank has taken a detour but they then skid off the road as he dozes off to sleep at the wheel. Continuing on, they give a ride to a strange unspeaking woman in white who is carrying what is revealed to be a dead baby. After they stop, Brad is attacked and abducted in a sinister black vehicle. Continuing along the seemingly endless road towards the town of Marcott, they find that every time they stop the mystery woman in white and the sinister vehicle appears to kill another of their number.
Dead End was a debut feature for French directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa. Canepa has not done anything else but Andrea subsequently went onto make the non-genre films Big Nothing (2006) and Brotherhood of Tears (2013). Andrea also co-wrote the script for this film’s co-producer James Huth’s subsequent horror comedy Hellphone (2007). Though it is a French production, Dead End takes place in English, was shot in L.A. and has employed American actors in all of the roles.
At the outset, Dead End gives the impression of being a modern Backwoods Brutality thriller. The same year it came out also saw the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and imitators like House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and Wrong Turn (2003) – indeed, Dead End has many similarities to the latter. At the outset, this seems to be shaping up as a solid enough variant where Andrea and Canepa do a reasonable job of crafting the portrait of a family and their various tensions.
Unlike the abovementioned, this is not a film that pushes things to grisly extremes. That said, some scenes have an undeniably unnerving ick factor – like where they come across Billy Asher’s body and Mick Cain reaches in to pick up the gore-soaked cellphone and has to prise an earring with a still attached ear off of it. In another eerie scene, the Lady in White (Amber Smith) appears to Mick Cain and kisses him, tearing the bottom half of his lip off with her teeth, to which his only reaction is to stand there and say “I love you”, before she strips her clothes off with her back to the camera and he reels away in horror at what he sees. Or haunted images of the sinister black saloon car driving off with members of the family trapped in the back of it, pressed up against the glass.
As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that we are no longer in the non-fantastical territory of the Backroads Brutality film but are moving into something spookily supernatural. There is the ever-so-spooky scene where Lin Shaye insists that she can see people that have died in the woods along the side of the road and then abruptly opens the door and jumps out to go and see them. She returns and in a shock we see as she stands there rubbing her exposed brain that she has accidentally been shot in the head by Ray Wise. From this point on, Shaye’s performance becomes increasingly bizarre and we get wild revelations about her son not being Ray Wise’s and insisting that he has a different name, before reaching the eminently unnerving scene where she absent-mindedly picks up a loaded shotgun.
Dead End has a fantastic build-up but the eventual explanation for what has been happening all along is disappointingly cliched. [PLOT SPOILERS] Here the film seems to be wanting to mash up Wrong Turn and The Sixth Sense (1999). It joins a host of other films that came out around the same time that stole the deathdream twist ending of The Sixth Sense, including the likes of I Pass for Human (2004), Hidden (2005), Reeker (2005), Stay (2005), The Escapist (2008), Passengers (2008), The Haunting of Winchester House (2009), Someone’s Knocking at the Door (2009), The Last Seven (2010), Wound (2010), Jack the Reaper (2011), A Fish (2012), Leones (2012), 7500 (2014), The Abandoned/The Confines (2015), Shadow People (2016) and Alone (2017), plus the finale of tv’s Lost (2004-10). In particular, Dead End resembles the ending of the inferior Soul Survivors (2001) where all of the haunted happenings were explained at the end as being hallucinations had by someone following a car accident.