Christmas Eve. On his way to his in-laws with his family, Frank Harrington decides to try a shortcut, for the first time in 20 years. It turns out to be the biggest mistake of his life.
‘Hell is other people’ goes the old Sartre quote. Taken from his play, No Exit, and exemplifying his stance on existentialist philosophy, let’s just cut to the chase and agree that he was talking about car journeys with your family. Countries like America, Canada and Australia are filled with people who truly understand the almost-inescapable torture of riding backseat across state with mum and dad during the holidays because ‘it’s cheaper.’ If the English attempted similar distances in any direction, they’d end up in the sea. On that front, perhaps they’d win the battle of the hellish car journey. Still, let us digress.
Dead End, directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea (the writer of bleak Simon Pegg comedy, Big Nothing) and Fabrice Canepa, compacts the long-distance family travelling experience into a swift, hellish 85 minutes, which includes dead bodies, outside self-gratification and disgusting looking pies. Yes indeed, this is an exhilaratingly odd one.
Tis Christmas Eve and the Harrington Family are travelling to Grandma’s house. In the front sit mum and dad, Laura (Elise Rainie) and Frank (Ray Wise). In the back seat, we find siblings Richard (Mick Cain) and Marion (Alexandra Holden), along with the latter’s boyfriend, Brad (Billy Asher). Things are already simmering along towards a festive punch up with Frank refusing to acknowledge that his shortcut isn’t close to being short, Richard throwing out numerous homophobic slurs at Brad, and Marion being just as surly as her mother. Ah yes… The holidays are coming, the holidays are coming!
Things take a turn when a nameless woman in white (Amber Smith) hitches a ride along with her new born baby. From the second she steps into the car, Dead End takes a left turn and becomes a delicious, nihilistic Christmas treat. Whilst the family try to make their way out of the woods with their new passenger, it appears they’re being followed by a black hearse. As the night progresses, it becomes apparent that whoever, or whatever, is driving the vehicle is targeting the family.
Like a crossover between François Ozon’s Sitcom and Harold Ramis’ National Lampoon’s Vacation (no, really), Dead End is a portrait of a family unravelling. As the woods keep their tight grip on them, and the hearse gets ever closer, the Harringtons unload bottled up feelings onto each other, alongside buried secrets that shatter their idyllic set up. Bickering about directions blossoms into wrestling a loaded shotgun out of Laura’s mouth, for example. All the while, Frank tries to remain positive, refusing to let the night’s events get to him before they arrive at Walley World. Sorry, I mean, grandma’s house.
As well as familial politics, the directors play with the idea of sex and death, and how both acts leave us in a vulnerable state. Someone brings themselves to orgasm by rubbing their exposed brain through a head wound, whilst another person ejaculates at the moment they hear someone being killed. It’s an unusual motif thrown into proceedings and once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Surreal as the film is, there’s always the satisfying feeling that you don’t want the events explained to you. Well, too bad. Perhaps the weakest part of Dead End is an insistence on summarizing everything you’ve seen in a final scene that, to a certain extent, could have been left on the cutting room floor alongside the ending to The Last Exorcism.
All that said, the directing team of Andrea and Canepa keep things moving along, whilst managing to keep a balance between soap opera dramatics and Sam Raimi-esque humor. There’s over the top quality to the performances, which feels like a deliberate decision on the part of the directors. And whilst this leads to a mixed bag, it’s clear Wise and Rainie know exactly what they’re doing, managing to dial up their performances up to 11 without it ever feeling forced.
A potent mix of nasty and fun, Dead End is the perfect film to put on at family gatherings to get them all out of your house.