When the credits rolled on Dead End, I couldn’t help but feel a bit shortchanged. Since it’s a film that spends most of its time playing with your mind by mixing realism and the supernatural, throwing the viewer back into the real world at the end seems like a rather disappointing conclusion. However, I’m prepared to forgive the filmmakers, Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, for doing just that, because they have managed to make a witty, camp horror film that subverts clichés and quite literally takes no prisoners.
We start the film on the road with the Harringtons, an average all-American family travelling to the Christmas Eve celebrations with the in-laws. It’s a ritual that they have been repeating for 20 years – except that this year Frank Harrington decided to take a short cut and no map. Of course, the Christmas setting is instantly a signifier of family hell, as the bickering between mom and dad begins and the Marilyn Manson-loving teenage son starts picking on his sister’s boyfriend.
It doesn’t take long for the action to kick off. Ten minutes into the film and we’ve already seen daddy nodding off at the wheel and narrowly missing another car. Soon after that, a woman in white appears on the roadside and as they try to help her, the trouble really begins. The family is caught on a road that never ends, literally stuck in an unending loop, and this forced proximity really becomes the subject of the film as their relationships deteriorate. We never see despoiled bodies, gore or all-out carnage, and that only makes it even even more terrifying.
The use of an entire family is the first subversion of a genre that normally tends to use groups of teenagers to drive the narrative. The moralising of teenage sexual impulses is refreshingly left out of the equation – perhaps unsurprising, since the film was written by two Frenchmen. For instance, you would think that the son, who escapes into the wood for a quick bout of self-gratification, would be the first victim to go å la Friday the 13th – but he is spared, if only for a while.
The confessions that the Harringtons start to make to each other at the height of their despair provide some of the most hysterical moments in Dead End. Laura Harrington, the mother, has the best lines, as she becomes completely unhinged and utterly repellent. At one point she admits she is not good in bed, but should they survive the nightmare, she will give her husband carte blanche to do what ever he likes.
With a clear reference to David Lynch’s The Lost Highway and the claustrophobia of The Blair Witch Project, Dead End is a truly horrifying film which manages to be hilarious at the same time. Sometimes over-stylised and occasionally disrupted by an incongruous soundtrack, the intelligence of the filmmakers is constantly evident. The horror is, of course, just a pretext to explore family relations, or to simply ridicule the clichés of the genre, although this is not a revisionist post-modern film like the Scream series. In fact, it’s a rather European look at a very American genre.