The Horror Honeys: Dead End: A Holly Jolly Road Trip from Hell

Dead End: A Holly Jolly Road Trip from Hell

A Sci-Fi Honey Holiday Horror Review by Katie

Dead End (2003)

It’s Christmas Eve; on a dark and desolate mountain highway, a family of five is crammed inside a sedan on their way to their relatives for a home-cooked holiday meal. Somewhere in between choruses of “Jingle Bells” and the usual verbal sparring that accompanies family road trips, Dad decides to take a shortcut through the woods. Is anyone surprised that this shortcut turns out to be a deadly mistake? Filmmakers Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa are clearly treading some well-worn territory with the premise of their 2003 holiday horror movie Dead End, so what do horror fans have to look forward to with this one? If nothing else, maybe some laughs – although not always intentional – and campy performances by horror favorites Lin Shaye and Ray Wise.

Wise and Shaye play a middle-aged husband and wife making their way to the in-laws for Christmas dinner. Along for the ride are their adult children Laura (Alexandra Holden) and Richard (Mick Cain), as well as Laura’s boyfriend, Brad (William Rosenfeld). The family members trade barbs and bicker in the familiar way that people tend to do in every kind of holiday movie, but the clan at the center of Dead End are immediately more obnoxious than endearing – especially man-child Richard, who uses a rest stop as an opportunity to masturbate in the woods (who does that?!). Along their haphazard journey they encounter ghostly apparitions, cyclical roads that double back, signs that lead to nowhere, and a general descent into lunacy. It’s almost as if National Lampoon’s Vacation met Christmas Vacation, with a dash of supernatural horror – unlike the “normal” horrors we all deal with when it comes to being with family at Christmastime.

Mom overcooked the ham, noooo!
After being stuck on the road trip from hell with this gang, you’ll be begging for the body count to begin; fortunately, Andrea and Canepa deliver on this front. People are struck by cars, burned, eviscerated, and even shot to death with a rifle that was supposed to be a Christmas present – thank goodness there’s a gun freak in the family, or else they’d only have fruitcake as a weapon. As family members drift in and out of shock and various states of consciousness, it becomes less clear what exactly is going on. Are aliens involved, or are the woods haunted by malevolent spirits? The inevitable twist finally does arrive, but how well it’s pulled off is debatable – anyone who has seen an episode of Tales from the Crypt or The Twilight Zone will be savvy to what Dead End is trying to pull off.

You're not fooling anyone, Ray.
The main problem with the film lies not in the story (although the dialogue is sometimes atrocious), nor in the competency of the actors. Both Ray Wise and Lin Shaye have an extensive career in horror and comedy alike, the former embracing maniacal melodrama in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series (fans will appreciate that his daughter in Dead End is named “Laura,” a nice touch), and Shaye making a name for herself as a valued player in highbrow horror (A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Insidious series) as well as lowbrow comedy (Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary). The main problem with Dead End, then, is that the film is unable to effectively negotiate the tonal balance between horror and humor. Shaye seems to be having a lot of fun with her role, and much of the dialogue comes off as more laughable than plausible, which may or may not be intentional on the part of the filmmakers. It’s best to not overthink it; just enjoy the ride.

And what a bumpy ride it is. 
The most enduring holiday horror movies often achieve an appropriate mix of both fright and fun that makes them memorable; otherwise, they seem to descend straight into the realm of pure ‘camp.’ If everything in Dead End is to be taken at face value, Wise and Shaye are off the wall in all the right ways, and this movie is worth adding to your holiday horror watch list for their performances alone. Were it not stretched out to a feature-length runtime, the seemingly endless circles this movie goes in would be a bit more tolerable; but if it’s more scares than silliness that you’re looking for, don’t get behind the wheel with Dead End – it’ll lead you right to where the title says it’s going.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Two dementedly festive family road trips out of five.