The one staple Judge Daryl Loomis keeps in his survival kit: a fifth of bourbon.
"The dreadful change came quite suddenly."—from Edith Nesbit's Railway Children
Horror today is more obsessed with the end of times than ever before. Whether it's the zombie stories that have become pervasive or the natural disaster craze of a decade ago, we have come to love thinking about the question of what we are to do when all of this is gone. My personal favorite type of cinematic apocalypse, the pandemic, isn't used as often as the others, but as we can see in Children of a Darker Dawn, the theme can make for some of the most intelligent horror out there.
Facts of the Case
Over the course of a few weeks, a strange virus has violently killed all the adults in the world. It starts with flu-like symptoms, but patients quickly get paranoid and violent until, finally, blood streams from their orifices and convulse until they die. The kids, forced to witness their parents die this way, now must fend for themselves, grow up alone, and rebuild society. Fran and Evie Meadows (Emily Forster, in her debut role, and Catherine Wrigglesworth, Derelect) are two young Irish girls wandering the road in the unending struggle for food and shelter when they come upon a larger group that take them in, but aren't even close to as friendly as they had hoped.
Children of a Darker Dawn feels very disjointed at first. After a very clear explanation of the pandemic narrated over a scene of a guy outside freaking out, his daughter watching him from the kitchen, washing dishes and silently crying. It then cuts around to the lead sisters at various points, from current time to the ordeal with their parents to the pair walking down roads, and it's hard to tell where writer/director Jason Figgis (Once Upon a Time in Dublin) is coming from and it leaves me with three questions right off the bat. What happened to that first girl? Why do they keep reading the same stupid book? Why is there no furniture in this world?
When the girls first encounter this new group a few minutes into the film, though, it settles down into a surprisingly effective acting piece. Once you get past the pandemic framing story and the brief, if bloody, scenes of parents acting bizarre and dying, it's barely a horror movie. Really, it's a showcase for some great young Irish talent, nearly all of them women, as well. That's a rare and refreshing twist in a genre that mostly treats women as meat. If I remember correctly, only four men appear who don't play dead dads, and while three of the four have essential roles, it's the girls who shine this time.
The two leads are very good, believable as sisters, and carry the weight of the movie perfectly well, but the rest of the cast does their part to help. This is especially true of the answer to our first question. Her name is Ellen Mullen (The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann) and she returns late in the game with a scene stealing performance. If the girls thought this group was a bunch of sick bullies, wait until they meet the real bully, who has finally come home.
Now, keep in mind that, at its core, Children of a Darker Dawn is really just a version of Lord of the Flies within some Irish town. There isn't one thing wrong with that in my book, but even though its pandemic trappings and scenes of parents violently convulsing and traumatizing their kids would make it seem like more would be going on, all you're going to see much of the time is teenagers either bickering or reading to each other. The answer to the second question is that they're reading The Railway Children, by Edith Nesbit and, they're reading it to keep each other sane. It brings out the loneliness of their situation and it works really well.
There isn't much violence in any of this; all we really get is a couple of parents wriggling around with fake blood on them, but Figgis really milks these scenes to bleed over into the present day. We don't see the "stories," as they call them, of all these kids, but as they look on in horror, their torment over them is clear. Figgis pulls a lot of suspense out of this and rides it out very well all the way to the surprising jolt of the conclusion.
It's very claustrophobic, but there's not a lot of flashy style on display. Especially with the constant big emotions in the performances, it can feel stagey, but there's a lot of charm in that. Figgis lets the performances speak for themselves and, the more I think about it, the more I think this could make a successful stage production.
This is especially true considering the answer to my final question, to which there is no answer. It seems that, in this post-apocalyptic Ireland, at least, there is a single bed, chair, or couch. Not a beanbag chair or inflatable hand in sight. It makes no sense, but it gives the movie a minimalist feel that works for the story. In fact, just about everything about Children of a Darker Dawn worked on me, so much that I immediately rewatched it and the work was just as good the second time.
Children of a Darker Dawn comes to DVD from MVD in an average release. The 1.78:1 image represents the low-budget look just fine, with decent detail in the intentionally very dark frame. The stereo sound is perfectly good, with clear dialog, but it's nothing special. The only extras are a music video and the trailer.
Children of a Darker Dawn doesn't look like much on the outside, but it's a fascinating little experience that's less a horror movie and more a performance piece for some great young actresses. It's an interesting stripped down take on the post-apocalyptic collapse of society, with shockingly strong acting for this kind of movie. Highly recommended and not just for horror fans.
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Studio: MVD Visual
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