You can sorta tell director and co-writer Bradford Baruh’s Dead Night is a debut film made on a tight budget. It’s crammed with interesting ideas, but not everything works. The movie’s biggest triumph, though, is one very enthusiastic performance—and it’s enough to recommend it to scary-movie fans.
Barbara Crampton’s been in a ton of horror movies over the past few decades, including memorable turns in 1985's Re-Animator and 1986's Chopping Mall, as well as more recent entries like You’re Next, Beyond the Gates, and the upcoming Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. But the party crasher from hell that Crampton plays in Dead Night just may be her scariest character ever.
I’d watch an entire movie that just follows the exploits of Crampton’s obnoxiously vicious character, Leslie Bison—which is obviously what Dead Night 2 should be, if Baruh ends up making a sequel. But Leslie is the antagonist here, which means there are some other characters we have to get to know before she graces the movie with her presence. Dead Night begins as the Pollack family—mom, dad, two teens, plus a teen friend—heads to a cabin that the mom, Casey (Brea Grant), has rented for a little getaway. She hasn’t picked the place at random; rather, she’s hoping that the purported healing properties of the land will help her husband, who’s just been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
As far as horror movies go, it’s a pretty standard first act, even with a flashback that hints that Mother Nature’s influence might not be as benevolent as Casey thinks. It’s night, it’s snowy, and it’s the middle of the forest, so cell service is nonexistent. Leslie would be along to bulldoze this familiar set-up even sooner, but Dead Night has a gimmick where it periodically flips over to Inside Crime, a TV show within the film that’s investigating the very events we’re seeing in the main narrative. The mock-doc is hilariously accurate as far as true-crime programs go, complete with a dramatically somber host and cheesy re-enactments. But despite the “evidence,” we soon see with our own eyes that Inside Crime gets it all wrong. It’s a clever device, but it wears thin fast, and it doesn’t really end up adding anything to the main story.
What does add everything to the main story is Crampton’s performance, which zooms from zero (literally, her character is revived after being found face-down in the snow) to a zillion as soon as she opens her eyes. I already called her a party crasher from hell, and without giving too much away, let’s just say she’s also a) a politician and b) also possibly some kind of pagan forest demon. Though the mystical elements of Dead Night are rather vaguely explained, some delightfully gross creature effects do most of the talking on that front—it’s worth mentioning that genre legend Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, John Dies at the End, Bubba Ho-Tep) is one of the film’s executive producers.
All you really need to know is that while things do get messy rather quickly, Crampton’s able to bring just as much cringe-inducing terror to a scene where she’s playing an unwanted house guest as she does to any involving bodies and sharp objects. And Leslie Bison teaches us all a valuable lesson worth adding to your horror warning checklist: If you ever offer kindness to a stranger who then proceeds to guzzle all of the milk in your fridge at once—best to just drop what you’re doing and run like hell.
Dead Night is now in theaters and available on VOD.