Image Entertainment // 2009 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // October 29th, 2010
When the Banshee Cries...The Dead Will Rise...
The Evil Dead meets Ozploitation head-on in Director Bret Anstey's Damned by Dawn, with mixed results.
Returning to her family home, Claire (Renee Willner) is keen to introduce everyone to her partner, Paul (Danny Alder), while making the most of the time left with her grandma (Dawn Klingberg) who is apparently at death's door.
While her family get to know Paul better, Claire visits her bed-ridden grandma who reveals she doesn't have long for this world and that someone is coming to take her on her final journey. It seems her grandma believes that the Banshee (Bridget Neval) is coming for her, and warns Claire that she must not be stopped from doing so. Initially Claire believes this to be nonsense, until a violent storm arrives accompanied by a terrifying shriek.
Before long Claire is face to face with the Banshee, as all hell literally breaks lose.
A number of key flaws hamper what is an otherwise commendable, but sadly lacking debut feature from writer/director Bret Anstey.
In terms of story, Damned by Dawn offers a reasonably original tale, making good use of that much-underused creature of Irish mythology: the Banshee. Initially at least, Damned by Dawn is a measured exercise in horror, that builds both tension and atmosphere surprisingly well, culminating in a brilliantly realized sequence where the Banshee is first introduced. As the men folk race off into the woods in a foolhardy attempt to find the source of a bloodcurdling scream, Claire and her sister, Jen, are left alone while their grandma rests upstairs. While checking on her grandma, Claire peers out the window and sees a ghostly figure in the fog. Going downstairs to take a closer look, Claire is confronted by the Banshee who floats menacingly in the distance. One smash-zoom later, and the Banshee is stalking the corridors of the family house, apparently searching for grandma. The film continues at this high level right until Claire, in an act of foolishness (especially as her grandma had warned her about this very situation not 10 minutes before), decides to push the Banshee out of a window, impaling her on a fence. From here on in, the film suffers, and goes downhill rapidly.
Anstey's direction is a mixed bag, particularly with regard to his choice of shots. At times Damned by Dawn is perfect, with tight close-ups playing beautifully with the soundtrack to build the tension; at other times Anstey opts for more expansive shots that are quite frankly stunning -- a car chase involving a plethora of flying skeletons being a prime example. But for every shot that delights there are several that simply fall flat, and actually serve only to cheapen the feel of the movie. Too often, most notably during an early confrontation with the Banshee, Damned by Dawn looks no better than most any other trashy DTV horror, and that's a shame, as clearly Anstey is aiming higher with his debut feature.
A few searches for information on Damned by Dawn will invariably bring forth comparisons to The Evil Dead; one overzealous article even claiming the film is the closest you'll ever get to Evil Dead 4. Now, I enjoyed elements of Damned by Dawn a lot, and Raimi's influence on Anstey is obvious from the start, but Damned by Dawn is no substitute for the much desired fourth installment of Ash's battle against the Deadites. Stylistically, Anstey clearly riffs on Raimi's classic trilogy (particularly the original film), which is evident in both the fog cloaked vistas and the vocal effects used for possessed characters, as well as several shots that are practically photocopies of The Evil Dead. But, where Raimi's pacing was meticulous, particularly in Evil Dead 2, Anstey's frequently falters, leading to proceedings dragging -- particularly during the film's second act.
Going back to the fog for a moment, this raises another problem that, though clearly unintentional, loses the film points. Fog drenched streets and woods can be a particularly effective device to help build the tension; Fulci knew it, Raimi knew it, and so too does Anstey. The problem is digital fog just isn't scary, and actually looks naff. Likewise, the digital effects employed to bring to life the flying phantoms is a little mediocre. I appreciate the film had a limited budget, but if the horror genre has taught us one thing in recent years, it's that practical effects are always a better option when you're trying to make someone soil themselves with fear.
The cast is made up primarily of newcomers and also-rans. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the acting overall is quite poor. Unable to elicit the emotional responses required, the cast are reduced to mugging and, in one case in particular, going wide eyed whenever something goes bump in the night. Ultimately the caliber of acting is not enough to sell the film, or evoke the scares the director is pushing for.
The screener sent for review, as is often the case, is not necessarily indicative of the final product. As such, judging the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is difficult. However, fine details looked good, with excellent black levels. Audio was similarly pleasing, with clean dialogue and a moody score helping set the tone. No extras were included on the screener, though it appears a making of and commentary should be included on the retail disc.
The final 15-minutes of Damned By Dawn, which veer ever closer into Evil Dead territory, see Anstey really deliver the goods. Some of his best visual work is contained within the final act, and, though he fails to deliver on the scares front, does suggest that better things are to come.
Flawed, and the possessor of a particularly lackluster second act, Damned by Dawn deserves kudos for it's interesting premise that isn't quite enough to save the entire production.
Regrettably, Damned by Dawn is found guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site