I haven’t done a movie review in a while, mostly because the majority of movies I’ve seen in recent months have fallen under the action and/or comedy category, and critiquing horror films is really more of my forte. Thankfully, with Halloween approaching, there is no shortage of scary movies to be found, be they in theaters or on television. My favorite collection, however, lies in the seedy underworld that is the Netflix queue. You see, Netflix, while having a brilliant selection of movies and compelling TV series available for viewing- is also a treasure trove for some of the worst, the cheapest, the absolute most unwatchable movies and shows in the history of film and television. This rings especially true in the horror movie category.
I love cheesy horror movies almost as much, if not more, than I love genuinely well-made horror movies or cult classics. I like watching the particular bad ones with a group of friends, which almost always turns the screening into something right out of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” with all of us laughing at and/or adding commentary during the movie.
That being said, I decided to get into the Halloween spirit this month by selecting some of these unquestionably bad horror movies on my Netflix queue, suffering through them, and reviewing them for your (and my) pleasure. I’m calling this series of posts “Horrors of Netflix,” and first up on the list is 2003’s “Dead End.”
I’ve seen “Dead End” before. More than once, actually. The first time was with friends, back when Blockbuster Video was still an active thing and not a relic from the past that people can look at in museums these days to learn about ancient civilizations, We had been looking for a horror movie to pass a lazy Saturday night and the cover to “Dead End” caught our attention.
The second time I watched this movie was days after the first time, when I wanted to confirm that it really was as bad as I’d originally thought and that I hadn’t hallucinated it’s terribleness or anything.
Needless to say, when it popped up on Netflix, I was pretty excited to get the opportunity to watch it in all it’s awful glory one more time to kick things off for this series of reviews.
Please be warned, this review will contain spoilers. If you DO NOT want to know how this movie ends, do not click the link below.
“Dead End” has always fascinated me in three ways. The first reason being that it actually has a couple of recognizable actors in it (Ray Wise and Lin Shaye, respectively) instead of some unknown D-lister who emerged long enough to star in the movie before promptly fading right back into obscurity. The second reason is that the movie clocks in at just over one hour and twenty-three minutes, but feels about five times longer than that, making me wonder if directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea & Fabrice Canepa somehow found a way to alter the space–time continuum via film.
Finally, the third reason is that people who have reviewed this movie long before I took a crack at it seem to defend it’s honor to the point of it being a little frightening. I’m citing one review I’ve read while doing my research that states that any nay-sayers or negative reviewers just don’t “get the campy undertones.” As someone who enjoys a good campy horror flick (“Cabin in the Woods”, “Freddy vs. Jason”, and of course, “Evil Dead II,”) this movie, while having a couple of unintentional chuckle-inducing moments, doesn’t really fit the profile of “campy.” It’s main intent was to be frightening and thrilling, which it isn’t- and the parts that are supposed to be funny just aren’t.
It can and should be ripped to shreds, which is why I’m here.
But let’s get to the plot, shall we?
The movie begins with a shot of Laura & Frank Harrington (Lin Shaye & Ray Wise) inside of their car bickering about being late for a visit at Laura’s mother’s house while their two teenaged/twenty-something year old kids, Richard & Marion, and Marion’s boyfriend, Brad, are sitting in the backseat. We are treated to an incredibly dated Marilyn Manson reference about fifteen seconds into the film, making me immediately regret this decision while the opening credits rolled.
Despite having been arguing mere seconds earlier, or perhaps from being so bored by it, the entire family, sans-Frank, have now fallen asleep in the car after the introduction. Frank himself looks as though he’s about ready to pass out as he struggles to operate the vehicle down the darkened, desolate, winding street. Eventually, he nods off, swerving in and out of the opposite lane until an oncoming car wailing it’s horn wakes him up. Narrowly dodging a collision, Frank pulls to the side of the road. No one is hurt, the car isn’t damaged, and the only casualty is a pumpkin & chocolate pie that Laura had resting in a box in her lap. She lets Frank now how displeased she is with his falling asleep at the wheel- but more so about the condition of the pie. She’s super, super pissed about the pie.
As the family continues on, Frank, undoubtedly more awake than ever with the whole cheating death and nearly killing his entire family thing- we find out a little more about where the Harringtons (and Brad) are headed. As noted earlier, they are en route to visit Frank’s in-laws. It’s mentioned that it’s Christmas Eve, and Frank, deciding that he was bored, had decided to take a alternate route instead of the interstate they typically travel on. There’s no way that can end badly.
When the conversation in the car turns to Laura’s mother’s cooking, and Marion politely asks that they stop since she’d feeling a little nauseous, Richard opens his mouth, which is probably the worst thing about this movie. He is hands down the most grating, obnoxious, unfunny, insert-negative-adjective-here character I think I’ve ever seen in a film, rivaled only by Justin Chatwin’s character, Robbie, in the 2005 re-make of “War of the Worlds.” For the better part of “Dead End” I was praying for Richard to meet a grizzly, horrific end- and although my prayers were (sort-of) answered, it didn’t come nearly soon enough. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
There’s some more painful, argumentative banter between Richard & Brad, who, by the way, is sporting one hell of an earring, before Laura proposes that they do what is pretty much the worst thing one can suggest during a family car ride- and sing a song together to pass the time on the road. Everyone, with the exception of Richard, proceed to get a verse and a half of “Jingle Bells” out of their system before Frank slams on the brakes, throwing the car in reverse and insisting that he saw a woman on the side of the road.
Sure enough, while the rest of the family stares in the direction Frank indicates, a woman rounds the side of the car to Frank’s driver’s side window- ultimately scaring the shit out of everyone. She’s dressed in a white, full-length evening gown, which is in no way bizarre of suspicious to anyone, is carrying a baby concealed in some heavy blanketing, and is apparently a mute, as she fails to answer basic questions like “are you okay?” when Frank notices the laceration across her forehead. Having no cell phone service where they are, and having passed a cabin a short ways back, Frank offers the woman a ride there- hoping to find a phone to call 9-1-1 for her. Marion volunteers to make room in the car for the woman and her baby and walk, which, again- doesn’t seem to concern anyone despite the fact that they have no way of knowing how this mysterious new passenger was injured in the first place. As the car drives off, Marion begins walking, reaching for a pack of cigarettes in her coat before promptly cursing to herself and throwing them off onto the side of the road. Menthols are really terrible.
At the cabin, Richard takes off into the woods to crank one out to a nudie mag he had stuffed into his pants (no, I’m not kidding,) because I know that nothing turns me on more than being lost in the middle of nowhere with my family and an injured mute with a baby. His hormonal urges leave Frank, Laura, and Brad to deal with the woman in the still-unexplained evening gown. Frank and Laura head into the cabin to look for a phone, and Brad is left to try and make conversation while seated in the backseat of the car with the woman still clutching her unusually quiet baby. Throughout the course of this entirely one-sided conversation, Brad admits that he plans on proposing to Marion later on that night at her grandparents’ house. The scene cuts to Marion, still walking, where she is practicing what to say when she breaks up with Brad- also later on that night. I admit, I laughed at this part.
The strange woman, either finally coming out of her shock or simply wanting Brad to shut the fuck up with his unsolicited small talk, finally speaks- telling him the baby’s name is Amy, and remarking how cold she is. She proceeds to pass the baby to Brad, in what I feel is, again, an attempt to keep him from talking to her. Brad notices that the heavily blanketed baby really has no way of breathing through all the fabric. The mysterious woman says it’s fine- the kid is dead anyway. Brad has pretty much the same reaction as I did- pulling the best “wait, what?” face in a movie filled with “wait, what?” moments- and pulls up the fabric covering the baby- revealing a split second shot of what looks like a mangled mess of meat and blood.
Laura, Frank, and Richard, who has finished his completely unnecessary game of tug-of-war with himself, come running to the sound of Brad’s shrieks of terror, only to find that Brad, the woman in the evening gown, and the baby are gone. Marion, who for some unknown reason is still not at the cabin despite it not being that far away, is the last person to see Brad. An old (vintage) hearse slowly passes by her, and as she turns to watch it go by, she sees Brad pressed against the back window, screaming for help.
Finally reaching her family, Marion tells them what she saw, and the Harringtons hop into the car and begin pursuit in the direction Marion came from. Even though the hearse probably can’t break 50-60 MPH, tops, Frank is unable to catch up. He can’t even locate it. He does see something in the road, however- and comes to a screeching halt- a shot that looks oddly identical to when he slammed on the brakes after he saw the woman in the white dress for the first time. Upon investigating, it turns out that what he saw was Brad’s mangled carcass (we never actually see it, although Richard picks up Brad’s cell phone, the antenna caught on his earring- still attached to his torn off ear.) Marion, overcome with shock or grief- passes out, failing to miss the silver lining that at least now she won’t have to suffer through an awkward and uncomfortable break-up speech.
Laura tries the cell phone, only to hear a woman pleading for help for her and her baby on the other end (I wonder who), freaks out, and throws the phone. The family decide to get into their car and go find the police, but only after moving Brad’s body, or what’s left of it, to the side of the road. Richard is designated to the task, and when he gets lippy about it- Frank does what I wanted to do since the movie started and smacks the shit out of him, making Frank my favorite character in this travesty.
More driving (that’s 98% of what this movie is) and Frank, once again, comes to a screeching halt. There is a sign up ahead on the road for a town he’s never heard of. He has Richard, then Laura, as Marion is conscious, but in shock, and pretty much useless for now, check the map in his glove box. The town isn’t listed. Regardless of this enormous red flag, Frank presses on, and Richard, who has seemingly had some sense knocked into him via bitchslap- begins pointing out the obvious other red flags like Brad being kidnapped and mutilated. There are no other cars on the road, and the clock in the car, as well as Frank’s wristwatch, have both stopped at 7:30 PM, Richard then completely loses any and all minuscule amounts of credibility he could have had by suggesting the night’s events are the result of aliens- prompting everyone in the car to both side-eye and ignore his stupid ass. Not content with sitting in silence like a normal dysfunctional family would in circumstances like these, Marion begins singing “Jingle Bells” in her shocked state.
Still on the same Goddamned road (see what I mean about this movie feeling like it takes an eternity?) Frank pulls up to a baby stroller in the middle of the street. Considering everything they’ve already seen, he isn’t content with just driving around it and wants to investigate. Laura pleads with him not to, and Richard takes matters into his own hands. The stroller is empty, pushed to the side of the road, and the disagreements between the non-in-shock-and-singing-Christmas-carol family members on the best courses of action to take are starting to turn ugly, with Laura and Frank at each other’s throats and Richard annoying everyone as usual. Frank decides he’s had enough of everyone’s bullshit, and finds a bottle of booze in the trunk. As if falling asleep at the wheel and nearly killing his family just wasn’t enough- now he’s going to drink and drive. In the midst of the arguing and drinking- the baby stroller manages to roll it’s way in front of the family’s car again. In the first smart decision made by anyone involved in this, they decide not to investigate this time.
Frank, with what I think may have been whiskey, or bourbon, coursing through his veins, and Laura nagging him with how pissed off she is about his idea to take a never-ending shortcut- finally snaps- admitting his hatred for his in-laws and brother-in-law who “jerks off to gun magazines.” I wonder if he keeps them in the front of his pants like Richard does with his nudie ones. Sorry, getting off track here. In the heat of the argument, the family suddenly gets a flat tire. Regaining their composure, Marion finally snaps back to reality- confessing that she’s pregnant. Not to be outdone, Richard confesses that he smokes pot.
While Frank is changing the tire, with Laura complaining about their daughter’s unplanned pregnancy and their son’s drug use- Richard goes off into the woods yet again. only this time it’s to smoke a joint. As he gets baked, the mysterious woman in the still unexplained white evening gown appears out of nowhere, with no baby in tow this time. Apparently Richard’s shitty one-liners have gone straight to her loins, because she leans in to kiss him and RIPS HIS LOWER LIP OFF WITH HER TEETH. Unfazed by this development, Richard is still down to bone until the woman takes her dress off- and he recoils in horror. Much like Brad’s corpse, we never actually see what the problem is- so until it’s explained- let’s just go with terrible tattoos.
Back at the car, Laura, Frank, and Marion are ready to leave- when the same hearse that had driven by with Brad passes by them- only this time, as you can probably guess, it’s Richard screaming for help in the backseat. Having unsuccessfully saved Brad in time, Frank gives it another try to save his son- until he runs over his body in the road, that is. This is enough to send Laura, who was already teetering on the brink, over the edge completely- and she loses it. With Marion and Richard having previously confessed their secrets, Laura, clutching a part of her son’s corpse, blurts out that Frank isn’t actually Richard’s father. Better late than never, I suppose! Frank packs up Richard’s body and sticks it in the trunk (WHAT ABOUT BRAD?) while Marion unwraps the shotgun their family had conveniently picked out for Frank’s brother-in-law for Christmas that they’d had packaged up in the back of the car. Laura, meanwhile, in her psychosis- sits in the backseat and eats what was left of the pie that had previously been destroyed. In a movie that leaves a lot to be desired in the gore/creepy department, this scene is actually the most repulsive thing to watch.
While Marion and Frank discuss the woman in white, whom Frank saw in the woods right before he began chasing after the hearse with Richard in the backseat, Laura draws Marion a picture, finally revealing a PG-13 version of what Brad looked like when they found him- which is actually the only intentional, funny part of the movie.
Laura gets sick after stuffing her face with Pie, and when she’s done puking all over the side of the road, she finds the gun Marion had left in the car. Her mental break has seemingly reduced her psyche to that of a six year old, because she starts pointing the gun at Frank, pretending it’s a toy and talking like a toddler- taking Richard’s place as the most irritating person in the family. Marion tries to talk Laura out of it, but Laura ends up accidentally shooting Frank in the leg even though she had the gun clearly pointed at his chest. The movie’s ballistics expert was apparently on vacation when this was being filmed.
Marion manages to fish the bullet out of Frank’s leg with a pair of tweezers while Laura sleeps in the backseat of the car, and Frank, not comfortable with his daughter driving, decides to get behind the wheel regardless of the fact that he just got shot. In the leg. He keeps on drinking whatever’s left in his trusty bottle of booze, too. You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, after all.
Stopping YET AGAIN to get out of the car and look at the map, Frank thinks that he’s finally figured out where they are and where they’re going. It’s at this time that Laura seems to come out of her fog, but only briefly. In one breath, she’s telling Marion and Frank that they need to stick together, and in the next- she’s telling Frank she forgives him for an extramarital affair she knew he was carrying on. It is just a night of bombshells for the Harringtons, and I’m starting to feel sympathetic towards Marion- who has trumped Brad in the “wait, what?” expression contest. Before anyone has time to recover from this, Laura wants to know who all the people she’s seeing in the woods are.
In the next scene, Laura is frantically waving to the people she claims to see in the woods, until she spots an old friend who had apparently died twenty years earlier. Wanting Frank to stop the car, and getting upset when he refuses, Laura proceeds to throw herself out while it’s in motion. No big deal. Frank obviously stops, and when he and Marion go looking for Laura in the road, only finding some of her personal belongings that were in her coat, or her purse- a familiar set of headlights appear, signaling the arrival of the hearse. Frank grabs the shotgun, takes aim, and fires like someone who hasn’t been drinking and driving all night. The hearse reverses out of sight, and Laura emerges from the darkness of the road, bloody and tattered. Frank looks her over to survey the damage when it’s revealed that the back of Laura’s head is missing- her brain completely exposed. Without thinking, Laura reaches up to touch her head, and dies. And that’s that.
Frank is ready to off himself with the gun, having lost his son, his wife, his mind, etc. until Marion reminds him that she’s still alive and expecting a baby, and would like very much to get the fuck off of the road. The two agree to carry on- without stopping again (thank you, God) after loading Laura’s body into the car next to Richard’s, and it’s during this time that the movie takes a more somber turn as Frank talks about the last time he saw the man, his old friend, who apparently impregnated Laura and fathered Richard behind his back. This depressing scene is cut short when- God. Damn. It.- Frank suggests that Marion stop the car and they walk through the woods in a last ditch effort to escape. At this point, I was so fed up with the pace of this movie and how it was going nowhere that I didn’t even care anymore. Walk away, guys. Go for it.
Frank finds a fence in the woods, and just beyond it, a light. He and Marion race towards it- only to find themselves back at the car. Ready to throw my laptop against the wall in frustration, I realized there was only fifteen minutes left to the movie, and swallowed what was left of my patience and sanity to see it through to the end.
BACK IN THE CAR YET AGAIN, Marion is driving while Frank compiles a list of things he wants to do when their nightmare is over. There’s a dated Playstation reference, as well as another Marilyn Manson joke, until Frank tells Marion to stop the car. They have passed the same cabin from earlier in the movie- the same one he and Laura had gone into to look for a phone to call for help for the woman in the white dress and her baby. After blowing the only working fuse in the place, Frank orders Marion to the car to get his flashlight while he investigates with a book of matches. The decision making in this movie is astounding. As expected, after going through a couple of matches, when Frank sparks up the third one, the woman in white is behind him- and she leans in to blow the match out, sending Frank into darkness and causing him to throw a fit and thrash about the cabin until Marion returns with the flashlight and leads him out of there.
Much like Laura, Frank has reached his breaking point, and has lost his grip with reality- kind of like how I felt as this movie dragged on. He snaps, slapping Marion a couple of times before he punches her and knocks her out, which was fine and good when it was happening to Richard- but with Marion, it’s pretty unnerving. Immediately realizing his error, Frank sticks the unconscious Marion in the backseat of the car next to her mother and brother’s corpses, presumably as a way to give her the worst wake-up ever, Before he climbs into the car, Frank spots the woman in the white dress heading into the woods, grabs the gun, and follows after her. He disappears into the darkness, screaming at her, until we hear the sound of a blade and a soft thud- which I assume means he was decapitated.
Marion wakes up to the sound of someone hitting the sides of the car and an unfamiliar voice screaming “he’s dead” at her. Climbing into the front seat, she’s able to start the car, but only able to make it about twenty feet before the car, having been out of gas for the past hour- finally dies on her. She has no choice to walk at this point, and as she does so, a tree bleeds on her without any explanation whatsoever. A tree she’s walking under just randomly starts dripping blood on her. Okay. Moving on. Having decided she’s had enough of the bullshit, Marion has her Jennifer Love Hewitt “what are you waiting for?” moment, screaming up ahead into the road for whatever or whoever has been terrorizing her and murdering her loved ones to show themselves.
Instead, she comes across a series of body bags in the road, each one belonging to one of the family members- and her boyfriend- who were murdered earlier on. As she unzips and gazes at her father’s body, the hearse rolls up. Marion goes to run, despite having been screaming for a confrontation literally seconds before- but is stopped by the woman in white, once again clutching her baby, who tells her that the driver is not there for Marion, before climbing into the passenger’s seat of the hearse and driving off. Marion goes to walk away, before headlights close in on her. There’s a loud car horn- and a flashback to the seconds before Frank narrowly avoided an accident after falling asleep at the wheel at the beginning of the film.
Marion wakes up in the hospital, screaming, and is quickly comforted by a Doctor who tells her that both her, and her unborn baby, are alright. As Marion slowly relaxes, the Doctor heads into the hallway, where she is met by a tall, pasty, creepy looking guy with a terrible haircut who wants to know her condition, since he is the one who found her. We learn that Frank actually didn’t avoid the collision after falling asleep. He collided with another vehicle head-on, the passengers being a woman and her baby (so there’s that plot hole kindly filled in,) killing everyone except Marion- who was ejected from the vehicle and in a coma for a few hours. As they exit the building together, the creepy, Lurch-looking guy thanks the Doctor, whose name is the same as the town that didn’t appear on the map while the Harringtons were lost.
In the final scene, the Doctor is having difficulty getting her car started, when Lurch pulls up and offers her a ride. What is he driving, you ask? The hearse. Of course. Of fucking course. The Doctor, not creeped out by this guy’s haircut or overall demeanor AT ALL, doesn’t even hesitate to get in the car, and two head off- probably to her demise. End scene. End movie.
I’m not sure what’s worse- the way this movie dragged on, the complete nonsensical story, the lack of actual scares or comedy, or the “St. Elsewhere”- it was all a dream/fantasy- ending, which is like a slap in the face to anyone who sits through it hoping for any kind of substantial finish. I expected more from you, Ray Wise.
Not only that- but this movie leaves one burning question in my mind. Brad, Richard, and Frank were all punished/murdered by the woman in the white dress in the bizzare-o, never-ending dream/alternate reality/whatever it was. Why Brad and Richard? Granted, Brad had that ridiculous earring and Richard was just insufferable- but when it comes down to it- shouldn’t it have just been Frank who was punished? It was his carelessness that ultimately killed the woman and her baby. Why drag it on? Am I reading too much into this? Probably. Has watching this movie mentally exhausted me? Absolutely. Could I sit through this film again? Nope.
And there you have it. “Dead End.” I believe a more appropriate title would have been “Never Ends,” but that’s just me.