Dead End Road (2004)

JUNE 9, 2010


There’s a joke about has-beens, that they’ll “be in your home movies if you feed them” or something along those lines. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but pretty close to the truth when it comes to Dead End Road, in which poor Dee Wallace Stone appears for about 3 minutes, long enough for you to wonder how the star of one of the most successful and inspiring family films of all time (Cujo) ended up in this, which was literally shot with a home movie camera.

There are a few other actors in the film of note, including a few cast members from Earth: Final Conflict and Mr. Belding himself (Dennis Haskins), playing Stone’s husband. And while I’m sure they won’t be able to retire on their Dead End Road money, they probably ate up a chunk of the film’s 100,000 budget, which is a shame as that money should have gone toward renting a more professional camera and/or hiring a DP who knew what the fuck he was doing (plus they don’t mention them on the DVD, which is usually the sole reason for hiring a name actor to film a glorified cameo).

See, the script really isn’t that bad. I kind of like the idea of an Edgar Allen Poe obsessive who kills folks in a manner taken from one of his stories, and it’s actually fairly successful at blending a typical slasher setup (a bunch of kids go to a cabin - not really the worst idea for a low budget horror film from Michigan) and a serial killer plot, with the veteran cop being taken off the case and the tough female FBI agent looking to get the guy and all that. But director/DP Jeff Burton (who also wrote and produced) seemingly has no idea of what a master shot is, or how to block, or even how to frame his shots so that you can’t see him and the boom guy reflected in a window or mirror in the background on several occasions (seriously, the little red light on the camera should be a listed cast member).

And it’s a problem throughout the movie, which kept me from ever being able to settle in and try to enjoy it. It’s almost like Burton went out of his way to choose angles that cut together awkwardly or deny you any sense of where people are in relation to each other. Even basics like the 180 rule are thrown out the window. Worse, he never bothered to have his actors give another take when they do something that draws attention to how little they care (Haskins) or how limited their acting abilities are (pretty much everyone else). Like when Haskins and Stone find their daughter’s head buried under the floorboards in their living room (a "Tell-Tale Heart" riff) - Stone believably shrieks and cries; Haskins just sort of turns away halfheartedly, as if it was his kid’s pet hamster or something. And at least three of the victims would probably be alive if they bothered to MOVE when being approached by the killer, instead of just clumsily standing there waiting for the guy to strike (again, this is what happens when you seemingly skip over the process of blocking out a scene). As much as I prefer film, there is no argument when it comes to the main benefit of digital - you can instantly check your footage and make sure everything is perfect, and if not, just shoot again while everyone is there. And that’s just for mistakes like seeing the camera reflected - I am sort of appalled that these stiff moments weren’t corrected instantly. “Can we go again, and this time can you at least try to act like a human being and attempt to escape?” I can forgive a few technical blunders on film for a first-time filmmaker, but there is simply no excuse for it with consumer grade digital on the guy's THIRD feature.

Scenes also come and go out of nowhere, ill-fitting with the ones around them. In my favorite example, we cut from a totally unrelated scene to an agent rushing to tell his partner that they “got to move, now!”, and when she asks where he says he’ll tell her on the way. Then they cut to them already inside wherever it is they’re going - three scenes without a single establishing shot between them to let us know where the hell they are. And it’s never clear how the guy knew where to go in the first place (his promised telling of where they were going is also absent), so the whole thing is just a giant “What the fuck is going on?” sequence. Later on, we are introduced to a character (45 minutes+ into the 80 minute movie) by showing that she can take a grown man down with ease, in yet another scene that comes and goes out of nowhere, but this one’s even more ridiculous because it doesn’t foreshadow anything; she gets killed just as easily as everyone else.

(She also gets killed outside, far from the house, right after the killer and his intended primary victim were seen inside the house’s basement/dungeon, but let’s just skip that little nugget.)

The kills, by the way, aren’t too bad. A rake through the eyes, a pendulum (of the “pit and the” variety) through the head, pole through another head... even the execution is better than you’d expect given the technical issues surrounding the rest of the movie. And while I think the idea that the killer would actually dress up like Poe is a bit silly, it kind of pays off during the kill scenes, as you see Poe wielding weapons instead of booze.

I also liked the movie’s balls. Not one but two “safe” characters are killed, and others are killed far earlier than I expected. Again, the script really isn’t that bad at all; you just have to put up with some atrocious acting and amateur-level filmmaking along with it. But regardless, I see so many independent films that play it safe, possibly due to the filmmaker’s delusions of grandeur (and by grandeur I mean a theatrical release), that it’s actually pretty refreshing to see one that sort of embraces the fact that it’s destined for DVD shelves. Even if it was made professionally, there’s no way the film would be released with its final 10 minutes intact, as it would be too much of a “downer” for multiplexes.

The disc’s lone extra is an interview with Burton where he covers all the usual bases, plus some behind the scenes footage of little interest. Seeking more information, I checked the IMDb and discovered that he has gone on to direct a couple more films, as well as write and/or produce a few others. And his next directorial effort, The Final Curtain, has a much higher IMDb rating than this one, so hopefully he has learned from his mistakes and improved as a filmmaker. Since this film wasn’t a complete disaster, I’d be willing to check it out and see for myself.

What say you?

P.S. My main draw to this film (besides its 80 minute run time) was a blurb on the DVD from Rue Morgue, who dubbed it “One of the best independent horror films of 2005”. I can’t remember enough to make an argument, so maybe it was. But I will say that Rue Morgue must have been a very different magazine back then, as they have always seemed very hard to please from the time I started reading it regularly in 2007, dismissing 75% of the films they review in each issue (and sometimes quite unfairly so - they actually said that Wrong Turn 2 should have been better because Joe Lynch is friends with Adam Green (!), and often include personal attacks on guys like Uwe Boll). Wish they had a few more forgiving folks there now. I'd rather be convinced to check something out that I ultimately don't like than be swayed away from seeing something I might enjoy.

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  1. lol, this review is worth it, for the Cujo reference alone....poor Dee Wallace...

  2. The killer, himself, is played by Babylon 5 actor Jason Carter, who does quite a bit of "sweeping ominously through" (the woods, corridors, etc.) While this isn't high art, I certainly didn't find it as painful as the reviewer did (though a 30-second primer in basic law enforcement procedures might have changed a lot of things in the plot...)


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