A family are driving to grandmother's house for Christmas, and in the car are dad Frank (Ray Wise), mother Laura (Lin Shaye), their son Richard (Mick Cain), daughter Marion (Alexandra Holden) and her boyfriend Brad (Billy Asher). This year, Frank has taken an alternative route along the quiet backroads, but it's so quiet that they're all feeling sleepy - including Frank, who nods off at the wheel and nearly crashes. They drive on, only for Frank to catch sight of a woman standing at the side of the road; he stops to see if she needs help but she is apparently in shock, and is carrying a baby entirely wrapped in a blanket. Marion gives up her place in the car to the woman, and they drive to the nearest phone while she walks, but they've made a mistake - they should never have stopped the car.
Written by the directors, Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, Dead End is a heavily mysterious horror which takes a simple set up - five people in a car - and puts them through a number of fright scene variations. At first, the tone is jokey thanks to some amusing one liners from Richard, who is mercilessly sending up Brad, but that inky blackness outside grows increasingly foreboding and the laughs dry up, especially after the woman in white appears. Although they find a cabin they believe to be a ranger's station, the party can't find a phone that works (yes, it's the old story of their location being too remote for mobile phones to pick up a signal), and they are forced to move on.
Things take a turn for the worse when Brad is left alone in the car with the woman in white, is horrified to see her baby is a bloody mess, and promptly disappears. Then the film builds up a pattern: the passengers are picked off one by one by unseen forces, and their mangled bodies are found later on down the road, but not after they have been seen wailing noiselessly in the back seat of a sinister black car that occasionally passes. There's more, too, all in the way of increasing the tension and sustaining the atmosphere of the uncanny: Brad's mobile phone will only emit screaming noises, as will the radio, and they keep passing the same signpost for an unknown town called Marcott.
You'll have realised by now that they are stuck on the road with no hope of getting off of it. The further the family travel through the forest, the more revelations occur, all showing them up to be seriously dysfunctional, rather than simply cranky, which we supposed at the beginning of the film. But is this something to do with what is happening to them? A solid cast hold your interest, and you're almost sorry to see them go because the banter is above average for this type of thing. Frank gets drunk, Richard attempts to find solace in masturbation, Marion turns catatonic for a while, and best of all, Laura goes off the rails and starts eating obsessively.
And the surprises keep on coming. But what you really want to know is, what's going on? All is revealed by the ending, which is perfectly fair, but maybe slightly disappointing for being so straightforward. Before that the plotline has run the risk of monotony; that it doesn't quite sink so low is credit to the cast, and the way that the film makers keep you guessing. They manage to find enough ways to throw you off guard, whether with unexpected humour or general weirdness, it's just that it might have been more effective without the plain ending. It's almost as if they give up on the mystery (Richard's alien explanation might have been better), although keep watching the credits for a little enigma. And if you keep watching the credits you get a compliment too. Music by Greg De Belles.