Dead Night (aka Applecart) (2017) Directed by Brad Baruh. Starring Brea Grant, AJ Bowen and Barbara Crampton. A vacationing family finds an unconscious woman near their cabin and takes her in, setting off a chain of insanity, murder and monstrous creatures prowling deep in the woods.
We open in June of 1961, as a young couple arrives at a makeout spot in the forest. They don’t get very far into their passion when something begins stalking them from the shadows. The gentleman decides to check the situation out and makes the mistake of saying: “I’ll be right back.” We all know how these things end. His girl is swiftly captured by two fiends-one human looking and clad in a leather cloak, the other a hideous monster-and impregnated in captivity.
We jump ahead to March of 2015. The Pollack family-mom Casey, dad James, daughter Jessica and moody son Jason-head up mountain roads to an idyllic lakeside cabin, accompanied by Jessica’s friend Becky Lane. As they drive through the winter slush and chat, a clawed woman in the forest approaches a large black pod with pulsating and bloody roots. She touches it lovingly.
During the ride, we learn that James (You’re Next’s AJ Bowen) is terminally ill, and that Casey (Beyond The Gate’s Brea Grant) rented this specific cabin because it’s built on mineral deposits rumored to have mystical healing properties. Casey’s supernaturally inclined friend Mika Shan pointed her in the direction of the possible cure for what ails James.
Meanwhile, the clawed woman busts out some tools and amputates one of the pulsating bloody root thingies. This cannot be good.
She then uses a hammer and chisel to remove a piece of the black pod.
The Pollacks arrive at the gorgeous cabin just as heavy snow begins to fall. They unpack and settle into their woodsy surroundings.
The film suddenly switches gears to Inside Crime, a true crime television series hosted by Jack Sterling (Daniel Roebuck) and focusing on a series of murders committed by a crazed mother at a remote cabin. We jump back and forth between this storyline and the central plot.
James explores the winter wonderland, looking for an axe to make firewood. Out of nowhere, as if somebody changed the channel, we see a commercial for squeaky clean local politician Leslie Bison (the legendary Barbara Crampton) and her campaign for governor.
While Jason looks at porn, Jessica teaches Becky to smoke. We learn that Becky’s grandmother Lily has been acting strangely of late and wanted her granddaughter out of the house this weekend. All are watched by a hooded figure in the trees. Becky tells Casey and Jessica that she’s heard creepy tales about the spirits that haunt these woods. We then learn that Mika, the occult guru who sent the Pollack family to this destination, is both secretly on her way to the cabin and in league with a mysterious woman who has ill intentions towards the Pollacks.
On his lengthy walk, James finds the unconscious Leslie Bison in a snowdrift and carries her back to the cabin.
They wake her up, and she proves to be a rather odd houseguest. She’s rude and a bit pushy. Casey departs to get a decent cell signal so that paramedics can arrive and examine Leslie. After making the call, she also phones Becky’s granny Lily and tells her they made it to the cabin safely.
Back at the cabin, Leslie reveals that she knows Mika and is aware of the purported healing powers of the grounds.
“Mika rents this place out to people who are dying. So, which one of you is sick?”
Leslie is completely devoid of social graces. She jokingly accuses Casey of sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious, eats the family’s food and generally irritates the hell out of them. When finally confronted, she suddenly infects Jessica with the piece of the black pod she severed earlier.
Think “Evil Dead” as Jess begins transforming into a shuddering, clawed ghoul. It’s the beginning of a pretty bad winter night for the Pollacks.
All the rampaging ghouls, pulsating roots and bizarre mysteries ultimately lead to a sanctuary deep in the forest, only a mile away from the healing cabin. Here, the cloaked and hooded watcher in the woods finally unmasks and the disparate story elements fall into place. Kind of.
Despite being saddled with the rather generic title “Dead Night,” this one has a couple distinguishing features: both Crampton and Grant are excellent, and the winter landscape is beautifully photographed. The film has an undeniably rich atmosphere and a definite sense of place. Well executed gore begins to flow in the final 20 minutes, with axe decapitations showing spurting neck stumps, a ghoul having their entire jaw ripped off gruesomely, limbs hacked off, etc.
Not every plot element is resolved neatly, but the gist of the forces behind the strange occurrences is explained.
More strange and eerie than truly terrifying, “Dead Night” is a bit of a cerebral watch. It’s not quite a crowd pleaser. It’s not much of a good option for a crowded Halloween party, because you kind of have to listen closely and pay attention to the clues being doled out.
I give it credit for taking classic horror plot elements (cabin in woods and soulless corpses attacking the living, namely) and breathing new life into them with an unusual tale. Worth a watch.