This supernatural slasher-in-the woods flick, the debut feature by director Bradford Baruh, has endured something of a troubled history. Premiering on the festival circuit under the title Applecart, the first cut of the movie drew far more brickbats than plaudits. Stung by the reception, the film was reworked and repackaged by its producers ahead of its VOD re-release under the new title Dead Night.
The updated movie deserves credit for trying to step outside the derivative “murderous maniac” template, even if it falls short when it tries to stitch back together the scattered entrails of its own plot.
After a 1960's flashback, the story begins with the arrival of the Pollack family at an isolated holiday retreat deep in the mountain forest (a “cabin in the woods”, if you will) in March 2015. Casey Pollack has rented the house from a family friend to give her seriously ill husband James a respite break, in a location said to have “healing qualities”. The couple are joined by their son Jason, daughter Jessica and close friend Becky.
Settling in for their first night, James discovers a mysterious woman, collapsed and unconscious, in the snow. She soon recovers, but immediately exhibits really odd behaviour, asking inappropriate questions about her hosts’ lives, and becoming a source of growing alarm.
When Casey heads off into the valley to call the paramedics, a series of shocking and violent events erupt which put the survival of all members of the family in question and reveal the disturbing entities hidden deep in the remote woodland. Beings now determined to extend their reach into the wider world.
One of the more innovative storytelling techniques of Dead Night is the way it integrates the dramatic reconstructions and the “talking heads” of fictional documentary series Inside Crime which (reporting from the present day) is covering the gruesome and deadly events of that fateful night. While this well-realised, meta-narrative device gives the audience a different perspective on the killing spree which is unfolding, it also robs the plot of much-needed tension by having the narrator announce each upcoming death in advance.
Once the hack-and-slash begins, things get very gory very quickly with visceral bloodletting by the bucket load. The reliance on 1980's style physical effects, particularly for transformation scenes, will please many fans of the genre, as will the retro appearance of the wood spectres and the cranked-up sound effects of snapping bones and tearing flesh. There’s energy and enthusiasm in the various deadly games of hide-and-seek that ensue.
Brea Grant is also very good value as the “mum with mettle” at the heart of the story and, while the dependable AJ Bowen is underused as James, the appearance of horror stalwart Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Chopping Mall), who delivers a confident, no-nonsense performance as mystery-women Leslie, will be an obvious draw for some viewers.
Scriptwriter Irving Walker is keen to underpin the bloodfest with a complex mythology, but he introduces too many elements and few of them hold together in a logical or satisfying way. The groundwork for a better-than-average slasher is clearly present amidst the blood-soaked bodycount and the crime reportage of Dead Night. It’s just a shame that, despite the determination and resilience of the filmmakers, its full potential got lost somewhere back in the forest.
DEAD NIGHT / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR: BRADFORD BARUH / SCREENPLAY: IRVING WALKER / STARRING: BREA GRANT, AJ BOWEN, BARBARA CRAMPTON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW