Dead Night (2018)
82 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).
Jumping through a few different horror subgenres as it goes along, “Dead Night” (which, for some reason, was changed from original title “Applecart”) is far more bizarre than its generic, dime-a-dozen title might suggest. Director Bradford Baruh, making his feature debut, and screenwriter Irving Walker devise a peculiar grab-bag of cabin-in-the-woods horror, home invasion thriller, creature feature, and the occult with polished production values. Even before the crazy, blood-soaked inciting incident occurs, it grabs one’s attention, but when the film splits its time with a distracting, momentum-stalling framing device and then jumps the rails into nonsense, “Dead Night” gradually pulls the viewer out of its devious, gruesome spell.
Casey Pollack (Brea Grant) drives her family to the Oregon woods for a spiritual healing retreat in a cabin built on top of an iron oxide deposit after her husband, James (AJ Bowen), has been diagnosed with cancer. With their two kids, Jessica (Sophie Dahl) and Jason (Joshua Hoffman), and Jessica’s friend Becky (Elise Luthman) in tow, they settle in and get dinner started, until James finds a woman unconscious outside in the snow. The woman is Leslie Bison (Barbara Crampton), a politician running for governor, and while the Pollak family offers her spaghetti and warmth, she begins acting ungrateful and asking rudely forward questions. Once James asks her to leave, things turn ugly fast.
Director Bradford Baruh is efficient with character introductions, utilizes his wintry milieu to set a nightmarish mood, and then confidently escalates uneasy tension, while one jolt in the snow-covered forest actually reminds of the unforgettable hospital hallway sequence in 1990's "The Exorcist III." What doesn’t help with suspense or urgency is how the current action is haphazardly intercut with faux true-crime show “Inside Crime,” complete with interviews, reenactments, and a hokey host (Daniel Roebuck), indicating how the story ends; the heinous murders that ensue are pinned on Casey, earning her the name “Axe Mom.” This dual-narrative conceit is an ambitious way to shake up a seemingly familiar story and play with perception of reality, but it might have worked more successfully had the crime show preceded the rest of the film or succeeded it as a bit of twisted irony. Where "Dead Night" shifts into Lovecraftian, "Evil Dead"-adjacent territory is bonkers and out of left field, although foreshadowed in the film's creepy-turned-gory 1961-set prologue. All the while, as the Pollacks arrive to the cabin, a white-cloaked figure lurks outside, seems to be brewing something in the woods that looks like a giant butt plug, and watches Casey’s case on “Inside Crime” on a bunch of televisions as if it were a future event.
The highlight of “Dead Night” is that it has an ace up its sleeve in the form of respected genre goddess Barbara Crampton. Though her sinister motivations will be preserved as mysterious as they are in the film, Crampton is a wicked presence at the center as Leslie Bison, and she seems to be having a ball in the part with a devil’s wink. The rest of the performances are all competent in bringing credibility to the wild goings-on, too. Brea Grant (2016’s “Beyond the Gates”), in particular, brings a sobering reality to her role of Casey, fiercely protecting her brood when she has to but then learning that the fates of her family are sealed and cannot be reversed. There’s also blood by the bucket and effectively icky, gooey practical effects on a limited budget to divert horror fans. When it's finally revealed what is actually going down in the woods, the final payoff of "Dead Night" isn't so much satisfying as it feels misguided and silly, despite Crampton being all in.