Don't Upset the Applecart:
You know the story. A group of people drive out to an isolated location, usually a cabin. A bunch of weird things happen that should tip the group that Bad Things are about to happen. Eventually, they can't ignore the warnings but it's too late and the shit hits the fan. These types of stories work really well for independent filmmaking, since they typically focus on a couple of locations and a small cast. The problem is that we've seen pretty much all permutations of this type of story and it's pretty difficult to do something new, particularly in a post Cabin in the Woods world. And, to a degree, that is one of the problems dogging Dead Night.
Facts are Facts
Writers: Irving Walker and Brad Baruh
Director: Brad Baruh
Gayly: fun, retro special effects and strong performances
Dreadful: a mishmash of story ideas and tones that don't quite gel
Availability: VOD and select theatres
Dead Night (previously, Applecart) begins with a pre-credits scene that I won't say anything about, except that it takes place in the 60s and was a surprising take on lovers in a car in the middle of the woods trope. After this, we follow the Pollack family in 2015 as Casey and James (genre stalwarts Brea Grant and AJ Bowen) drive their two teen kids Jessica and Jason and Jessica's friend Becky to a rented cabin in a (naturally) remote and wintry forest. James has recently been diagnosed with cancer and he's humoring Casey, who believes the cabin is built on sediments that have healing properties.
At the cabin, the family finds the phones and internet unresponsive. Cell service is obviously spotty. But the family tries to settle in and James goes into the woods to get some firewood. What he finds instead is an unconscious woman. He drags her to the cabin, yelling for Casey, who is a nurse, to revive her. When she awakens, she introduces herself as Leslie Bison and there's something off about her. She acts unconcerned about her state, flirts with the Pollack's teenage son and callously asks who is sick and dying. Leslie is played by Barbara Crampton, who tackles the role with a deliciously campy glee. Eventually, the weird situations start piling up and then the violence starts.
All of this sounds pretty standard fare, with the possible exception of Crampton's character. But there's more at work here that I haven't and won't go into. The story takes some left turns and goes in some odd directions. The only example I'll give is a true crime TV show that the action occasionally cuts to, which covers "what really happened" the night the Pollacks arrived at the cabin. According to the show, Casey deliberately lured the family to the cabin and then went on a killing spree. Interestingly, the action flips back and forth between the events happening and this future program. But with a running time of under 80 minutes (not including the credits--which includes a post credits scene), the result is an often disjointed story.
Honestly, Dead Night feels like a mishmash of horror subgenres. Part of the fun is that the story feels a bit all over the place that you don't really know what's coming up next. But when you throw in everything, including the kitchen sink, you kind of want something to anchor the story. And unfortunately, it's hard to find that throughline. Tonally, the film confuses. Sometimes, the tone wildly careens from humor and camp to complete seriousness in the same scene. It's not slapdash silly like something like Evil Dead 2, but it's also not completely serious. With such a short running time, Dead Night doesn't really explore the disparate ideas it throws together. And yes the twists like the True Crime TV Series could bring an interesting dimension to the story, but the whole thing feels a little underdeveloped. And that's not even taking into account the other twists and turns the story has. One of the twists seems to want to make the movie About Something, but a lot of it feels undercooked.
The acting is obviously the high point, but even here it feels like different movies. Brea Grant and AJ Bowen give a very naturalistic performance, depicting a loving couple dealing with unruly kids but also with something deadly serious like cancer. Likewise, the teens are typically disagreeable and teen-like. Then you have Barbara Crampton, dialing in a completely campy but awesome performance. Watching her chew the scenery is very entertaining, even if it sometimes feels like she's in a different movie. But the effect is a whiplash, as you're not sure what the film is trying to be. That said, it was fun eventually seeing Brea go all Ash Williams on the baddies.
Another high point are the effects, which feel gloriously retro and practical. A few shots are obviously computer generated, but the practical effects are a nice touch. Particularly the last ten minutes of the film, which involves incredibly gooey effects reminiscent of some of the 80s horror greats. That money shot moment is truly awesome and pretty stunning.
The things I really enjoy about independent horror films are the chances they are able to take. Without being saddled with a big studio budget and resulting requirements, they're able to sometimes go in inventive and crazy directions. Dead Night strives to do that, but isn't wholly successful. I wasn't surprised to see that it was produced by Don Coscarelli, who genre fans will remember as the creator of Phantasm and has produced some fun little genre experiments in recent years, like John Dies at the End. It's a fun movie that probably could have used a bit more story-work. I just wish they had gone a little further. A little more zany, maybe. Or more serious and played straight. Scarier. Or funnier. Something. As it is, the acting and special effects barely keep the story buoyed but outside of supporting indie horror, I can't really recommend it.