Let’s just get this out of the way: originally titled Applecart and receiving mostly negative reviews at the 2017 Fantastic Fest, the film was retooled and is now available as Dead Night. Brad Baruh’s feature directorial debut, this slasher/supernatural thriller/true-crime-tv-send up features genre all-stars AJ Bowen, Brea Grant and Barbara Crampton. Over one snowy night, our characters end up together in a secluded cabin surrounded by woods that house a malevolent presence. Essentially, all of the ingredients for a suspenseful, creepy and gory good time. But did everything come together successfully with fresh editing and a new title? Kind of.
James and Casey Pollack (AJ Bowen and Brea Grant) are taking their family to a cabin that is built over a deposit of iron oxide. It is fabled that this will help cure James’ cancer. Their children Jessica and Jason (Sophie Dalah and Joshua Hoffman) have also brought along their friend Becky (Elise Luthman) because, ultimately, the story requires one more unwilling victim. Spoiler alert, you ask? Nope. Running concurrently with this timeline, a true crime show titled “Inside Crime” which explicitly details who dies, when they die and how they die. Billed as “Axe Mom”, Casey will go on a Jack Torrence type killing spree, but did she simply crack under there pressure of being a mom and wife or is there something else at work here? I bet Leslie Bison (Barbare Crampton) knows. A political candidate in the area, she randomly appears passed out in the snow in front of the cabin and she’s a hoot. Crampton is clearly having a ball playing Leslie and it’s a delight to watch. In fact, all of the actors appear to be having a blast and digging deep into their roles. Bowen is a walking/talking dad joke, Grant is a quintessential Final Girl and Dalah inhabits her “not quite a dead-ite” incarnation with gusto. The level of dedication that everyone brings to some questionable directorial choices may be the saving grace of the film. There is absolutely no question that they had a great time hanging out in Lake Tahoe and making this movie, but that doesn’t make the cross cutting with “Inside Crime” and Bison’s political ads feel any less clunky. Don’t get me wrong; those bits are hilarious, but they also diminish any creepiness that may have been building up and when you learn the exact reasoning behind them, well, it’s all too much. (And were they meant to be hilarious?)
The creatures who live in the woods start out legitimately scary, but then they remove their masks and talk too much about their purpose and their rock that looks like it came from an episode of Buck Rogers and the only thing left that is scary is wondering how much longer this will go on. And back to the Lake Tahoe location: the film takes place in Oregon, but was clearly filmed in Lake Tahoe. With truly beautiful shots of the mountains and lake, why would you arbitrarily say this is all happening in Oregon? Why? Perhaps I missed the reason while being bombarded with so many different timelines.
Ultimately, Dead Night feels like Baruh may have bitten off more than he can chew for his first feature. Viewed as a midnight splatter film, it’s a fun exercise in horror camp with some exceptional makeup and effects. Viewed as a serious horror film, it’s found lacking. Come for the performances, stay for the makeup and if you can stomach it, hang around for the stinger.
Dead Night is in theaters and on VOD (USA) July 27.
Lisa Fremont | Twitter: @lcfremont
Images: Sapkar PR