Dead Night, a title that could describe any number of horror films, starts with a dark flashback and quickly moves to a desolate rural cabin. It's familiar territory: You know right away that this family trip isn't going to end well. But what could be standard B-movie fare is livened up by a novel structural device. The action, centered on a family's encounter with a mysterious stranger, is interspersed with clips of a convincingly ominous true-crime show detailing a horrific murder case. This proves to be a clever misdirection device (though most horror fans will still see the twists coming), its re-enactments and dramatic narration a running commentary on horror tropes. (A dip into political satire at the film's end is less successful.)
Too bad, then, that Dead Night's characters' lack personality. All we really know about its two ill-fated teen girls is that one is slightly more "bad" because she smokes and has dark hair, while the other is a blonde who wants to call home. The parents are also rather bland; the most fun character to watch is the most evil, played by horror mainstay Barbara Crampton with a compelling blend of folksiness and sarcasm in the ultimate service of viciousness. Crampton's performance, the squelchy sound design and spurts of blood provide occasional jolts, but Dead Night ends up being muddled, never committing to either solemn supernatural horror or its elements of camp.