If you’re a horror fan, you likely miss the practical effects creature features of the eighties. Ever since the late nineties, CGI has dominated our beloved scare fests. Gone are gooey monsters and sticky corpses roaming screens drenched in blood. It’s debatable that practical effects may be making a bit of a comeback in theatrical horror, but if you want to find the really good stuff these days, the indie scene is where it’s at. And for those of us that miss the FX of the eighties, there may not be a better callback this year to that delicious decade than Dead Night…
...Directed by Brad Baruh (his first feature) and written by Irving Walker, Dead Night (once titled Applecart), tells the story of Casey Pollack (Brea Grant), a woman desperate to save her husband (AJ Bowen) from dying of cancer. In that desperation, she drags her family, Jason (Joshua Hoffman) and Jessica (Sophie Dalah), along with Jessica’s friend, Becky (Elise Luthman), to a cabin in the mountains during the dead of winter, a place where there is supposed to be some kind of healing magic deep beneath the cabin. There, they encounter a woman in the woods, Leslie (Barbara Crampton). It isn’t long before Casey and her family find themselves fighting for their lives during one long night of terror.
From the get go, Dead Night pulsates with tremendous style and ambition that you just don’t see that often in horror released directly to VOD. It’s so easy for first time directors to shoot by the numbers and not take much risk, but Baruh is a risk taker, and he goes right for the jugular. The film is simultaneously gorgeous and horrific, with provocative cinematography by Kenton Drew Johnson that inspires awe and wonder in one instance just as easily as it causes the viewer to cringe in the next. The music by well-known composer, Joseph Bishara gives Dead Night the pulse it needs to create a sense of brooding atmosphere that digs its claws in and never lets go. All of this allows Baruh to create a relentless tension and show off his knack for terror.
Baruh’s talent is on full display in the opening scene, which is riddled with chills and thrills that will make the hairs on the back of your neck freeze up like tiny icicles. In the opening scene alone, involving murder, gore, alien objects and an utterly bizarre ritual, Baruh establishes that Dead Night is not holding back any punches. Dead Night is unforgiving in its horror, and once the midway point hits, the film becomes a fast paced, relentless nightmare with obvious Evil Dead influences.
Those influences are represented by deadite-esque creatures that are monstrous in every sense of the word, and look the part too. The make-up effects in the film are fantastic, making it a shame that so many of them flash by too quickly to fully relish, an aspect of the film which Ash Williams himself would most certainly not find “groovy”. Not to worry though, gorehounds, because while the creatures may appear to have been too ugly to show onscreen much, there is plenty of gore and the type of skin-ripping, eye gouging FX to make you feel sticky all over. While I don’t think there is anything here that pushes the boundaries of “never before seen”, more hardened horror fans will find themselves grinning like the sick mofos we are at the rampant mayhem.
Each of the actors/actresses are great in their parts, especially Barbara Crampton, who fits perfectly into the villainess role. I can only recall her playing the villain one other time in Beyond the Gates, but I can say with confidence that Crampton NEEDS to be given more opportunities to take a bite out of the black heart of evil. Admittedly, she and the others aren’t given too much to work with, as Dead Night becomes much less about the characters and much more about the frantic horror halfway through, but Crampton nails the eccentricities of her character, taking pleasure in being bad. Brea Grant is also wonderful as a distressed mother fighting to save her family. Her pain is real and tragic. Again, it’s a shame that, at a runtime of just over eighty minutes, she and the others aren’t given enough time to fully develop in order to make the weight of the tragedy feel that much heavier.
So far, this may sound like a glowing review, and I don’t want you to get me wrong, Dead Night is a fun little horror film…but it is far from perfect. In fact, it practically falls apart under its own weight once the action begins, choking just as bad as the Packers did against the Seahawks in the 2015 NFC Championship (sorry not sorry, Cheeseheads). Dead Night feels like a film that suddenly becomes uncomfortable in its own cold, dead skin. While the first half takes its time to creep under the flesh, the second half does a complete one-eighty, switching gears and throwing tension right off the mountain top. The creatures are great and the gore is aplenty, but the film moves much too fast to create genuine suspense, and as I mentioned before, hardly takes the time to relish in the wonderful FX which ravages the screen. The second half is fun, sure, but it’s easy to find yourself lost in all of the chaos and confusion.
Confusion is a keyword there. Once again, Dead Night has WAY too much going on for its own good. Baruh and Walker pack a story about witches, infected zombie creatures and mutant bug people, along with parallel perspectives of the same time period into a tight, not so clean package. From the moment the film introduces old TVs in the woods playing a repeating segment called Inside Crime, an Unsolved Mysteries type show discussing the events which are taking place, Dead Night completely blows apart like a bloody snowball hitting a tree. The segment, which Baruh takes us back to again and again, is not only distracting, but adds nothing of relevance to the story. For example, (forgive a very MINOR spoiler), but Inside Crime tells us that Casey called Becky’s Grandmother (Kay D’Arcy), to tell her that they had found an injured woman (Crampton), and called the police. Moments later, we see Casey make that call, with no additional information added in the scene. Generally, when a film includes this sort of fourth wall breaking exposition, it’s to throw the audience off and lead them down a path that will have them thinking one way, just so the director can pull the rug out at the end. Not the case here. All the segment does is completely spoil a good portion of the events halfway through, therefore putting a damper on the overall “surprise” of Dead Night. Believe me when I say that the explanation for this only furthers the convolution of an already convoluted film that offers little to no explanation of the why and how as to what’s occurring (though practitioners of nihilism will certainly find something to enjoy about Dead Night’s hopeless message).
If Dead Night hadn’t gone off the rails so hard so quickly, I would probably be saying this was one of the most fun horror films I’ve had the pleasure of watching this year. For a first-time director, Baruh demonstrates plenty of ability for directing horror with stylistic sensibilities that stand out amongst a number of forgettable tales. Many of the risks taken may not have worked for me, but I can appreciate any director who prefers being bold over being average, and it’s my opinion that Baruh has a bright future ahead of him in the horror genre.
Dead Night is available now on VOD.
By Matt Konopka
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