Further proof that Hollywood just doesn't get it right anymore.
When it comes to the horror genre, simplicity is beyond best. It's the one genre where frequently the more feeble the material, the better it can be.
Dead End is an avatar of this principle. The plot is essentially just a concept film; family driving in a car, lost on a road that seems to not end, encountering things beyond explanation along the way. There isn't anything complicated about that and there shouldn't be anything complicated about that. It's a script that builds in on itself, instead of expanding outwards into new territory - yah, I said territory. It doesn't continue to introduce new elements to the fold, in the first 7 minutes it throws it's hands up and says, "this is what you're gonna get, so take it." And I applaud the filmmakers for this. It's something seldom done in the genre these days. All too often do horror scripts follow a formulaic plot that spirals outwards instead of simply just constructing a boxed in realm of the film's reality and then letting the character's react realistically within it. Dare I say it is actually rather Shakespearean in this way? Oh, I dare. Shakespeare was known for creating a story, believable characters and then letting the play unfold as if the characters were realistically responding to the world created around them. This is exactly the scenario with Dead End. It avoids the most common pitfall of the genre; characters that act without logic, without interest and without motivation. It's something scriptwriters should pay considerably more attention to. Characters like these possess some kind of magical power that gives a +20 to any cinematic enjoyment. I cast magic characters! And speaking of those characters, their actions may be realistically responsive, but if it weren't for the remarkably energetic performances of all the cast then all would be for naught. Ray Wise is the man in this movie. He is just badass without being over the top. He has created out of the father a man who is just trapped in an obviously humdrum life and transformed him into someone you just can't help but smile at every time he curses at his family. He is just great. Great, great, great. If I had to recommend the movie for any one single reason, it would be to just enjoy Ray Wise.
The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, Wise doesn't eclipse the few other actors there are, but they all compliment each other like they really were a family. It is the definition of on screen chemistry.
Now, the question you're asking, is it scary? Yes and No. No, it isn't balls-to-the-wall horror. It does fall prey to the optimism of the genre, but it's excusable and I'll get to that in a minute. The script is kinetic, always driving ahead and only pausing as long as necessary to make a point or get in a scare. It's because of this that the film will never scare the **** out of you, but when it wants to it'll keep your heart rate elevated to the point that you're aware of it enough to say to yourself, "hey, this movie is kinda freaking me out." I respect that. It knows it isn't hardcore, so it does exactly what it should and keeps your blood pumping a little faster than normal throughout. I love that feeling. But I also have a wild imagination and so was consistently prepped for an entry into the negative space of the car windows or emerging ever so slightly from the edge of the woods. And that'll freak my junk out more effectively than what you do see.
As for the film falling victim to the optimism of the genre. This is true, but it is appropriately so. It doesn't establish throughout the rest of the movie that it should be taken as the hardest of horror, so no pretending means no disappointment in the end. Oh, and worth an important note for most viewers, there isn't a whole lot of gore, it really does leave a lot up to the imagination (as it should), but what blood there is isn't over the top and there are no CGI scares. Take that for what it's worth, but it's worth a lot to me.
That said, I would have preferred a different ending. Not solely because I would have preferred a darker ending, but simply because the ending has an air of unreliability to it. It attempts to mollify the question that the movie never asks, but obviously the viewer will ("what exactly is happening here?") and I felt that wasn't really necessary. I liked that the movie wasn't raising question after question. I liked that it turned its back to the whole issue, so when the events of the last two or three minutes of the film hit the viewer, or me at least, they feel out of place.
All in all, this is movie that strips away the gloss and glamour prevalent to the genre as of late, establishes the concept and then happily throws what it's got left at the wall. Yes, it doesn't all stick, but the little things that don't are more than shadowed by the much larger portions that do. Dead End is worth your time and money. Rent it and watch it by yourself or with a date, but not in a group. A group would kill the pleasant intimacy that makes the film work beyond its bounds.
I'm hesitant to say instant classic, because obviously it won't be universally so, but it deserves that accolade in my book. Check it out.
The one sentence review: Dead End is a fun ass genre flick that never pretends to climb Mt. Everest and thus leaves the viewer with more than just a feeling of simple satisfaction, but one of raw enjoyment.