Arrow Video FrightFest 2018: Dead Night (2017)
Most of the action of Brad Baruh’s Dead Night takes place over one long dark night on the 21st March, 2015 – Spring Break, technically, but still snowy in the Oregon hinterlands. Yet the film opens in the same place on 12 June, 1961, as a couple canoodling in an open-top car comes under vicious attack by robed and hooded figures, and the woman is bound in the forest and forced to give birth to a baby girl. If this prologue offers an irrational, cultic frame for what follows some half a century later, then the viewer will soon be bombarded with contradictory interpretative matrices, and left to find their own truth.
“It kinda sounds like bullshit,” comments Jessica Pollack (Sophie Dalah) on hearing that her mother Casey (Brea Grant) has chosen the cabin where they are vacationing because it is said to be “built on a magic pile of rocks” which Casey hopes will have a miraculous curative effect on her cancerous husband James (A.J. Bowen). As mother and daughter, along with Jessica’s brother Jason (Joshua Hoffman) and her best friend Becky (Elise Luthman), settle into their new environment, James heads out looking for firewood, but instead finds a woman collapsed in the snow. This is Leslie Bison (Re-Animator‘s scream queen Barbara Crampton, here brilliantly creepy), a local candidate for governor whose peculiar behaviour gets everyone at first rattled, and then fleeing in confused panic. Intercut with this are excerpts from Inside Crime, an investigative TV show whose expert interviews and cheesy reconstructions reveal that Casey, now in police custody, has been dubbed ‘the axe mom’ after slaughtering her own family…
As Dead Night flip-flops between this reportage and the night’s doom-laden events, we must choose between radically divergent perspectives: on the one hand, a cabin-in-the-woods scenario where a coven of weird sisters, a woodland entity and a mystic, feminised (yet phallic) form of manifest destiny (both political and personal) somehow conspire to bring about the tragic ruin of the Pollacks; and on the other hand, the deluded fantasies of an emotionally fragile mother undergoing a murderous mental breakdown. Half the film’s fun derives from trying to steer a course between these two explanations, neither of which quite suffices in itself to bring narrative coherence to what we see, so that the viewer is overcome with an uncanny sense of disorientation. The other half consists in the sheer fun of the increasingly bananas plotting, pitched somewhere between The Shining (1980), Haute Tension (2003) and The Evil Dead (1981), as the ritualised cycles of perverted female empowerment are shown to have very ancient roots.
Strap: Brad Baruh’s bonkers family tragedy is all at once a psychological and supernatural tale of perverse female empowerment.
© Anton Bitel