Judge Gordon Sullivan is off to see The Wonderful Banshee of Oz. L. Frank Baum just turned in his grave.
Our review of Damned By Dawn, published October 29th, 2010, is also available.
The dead will rise.
As a country, Australia has really stepped up its filmmaking game in the twenty-first century, especially where the horror genre is concerned. Sure, most of what gets exported from Oz is crap horror not unlike our domestic features, but there are a few gems now and again. Now we know that Australia has arrived as a cinematic force to be reckoned with because they've produced their own homage to the venerable Evil Dead franchise. Many a filmmaker has pledged allegiance to that hallowed series, and Damned by Dawn is Australia's answer to Sam Raimi's famous antics. Although it strives mightily, the film can't quite leave the shadow of its famous predecessor, offering only a few moments of genuine visual pleasure inside an otherwise trite narrative.
Damned by Dawn really centers around Claire (Renee Willner), a woman who returns to her family home with her partner to visit her ailing grandmother. Claire's grandmother is afraid something from the other side is coming to take her, and Claire is initially disbelieving. Then one night a Banshee appears, and it's up to Claire to fight for everyone's souls.
Banshees, like a lot of otherworldly creatures, need a better PR firm. They started out as just fairy women (that's literally what they were—bean sidhe or woman of the fairies). When someone would die, women were hired to wail at the funeral (much like we use bagpipes now). When a really important person died, a fairy woman might show up to wail for the dead. Of course fairies are notorious for their poor sense of mortal time, so they'd often show up before the person died, or before the family knew. So, having a banshee show up and start wailing was considered an omen of death. These days, though, a banshee is like an nasty monster that's just as likely to cause the death as to mourn it. And that's really the whole plot of Damned by Dawn: woman fights the nasty banshee.
For what it is, the film works well enough. There's a decent amount of tension as the film introduces us to Claire's family home. Her grandmother is convincingly portrayed, and when the banshee shows up in the fog-drenched landscape it's a fairly chilling moment. The film also gets points for the latter half of the final act. The visual aspects of the film are pushed to the fore, and the final showdown is a cinematic treat full of interesting camera moves.
The problem with Damned by Dawn is that everything between the film's first and last 15 minutes is pretty dragged out. There's no real sense of atmosphere beyond the fog-drenched landscape outside, and the interior never feels particularly claustrophobic. Once we see the Banshee (about a third of the way in), there's no real surprises left, so we just wait for the final showdown hoping for some gore along the way. I don't want to use Evil Dead as a club to beat up on Damned by Dawn, but since the box art quotes a review that compares the film to the rumored Evil Dead 4, some mention needs to be made. Compared to that venerable flick, Damned simply lacks the energy that Raimi drenched so much of Evil Dead in. It also doesn't help that Damned has to rely a bit too much on CGI to get a lot of the effects that most fright fans would prefer be practical.
On Blu-ray, Damned by Dawn looks pretty good. The film was shot in HD and encoded with AVC, so detail is pretty strong and the blacks are appropriately deep. However, this is still a low-budget affair, so there's a lot of softness in some shots, some weird sharpening, and some banding. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is total overkill. There's a decent amount of atmospherics, but the attention to sonic detail just isn't there.
It's hard to be too harsh on Damned by Dawn, no matter its shortcomings, after checking out the extras on this Blu-ray. The almost hourlong making-of documentary shows that this was a passion project for everyone involved. They all seem to live and breathe movies and their enthusiasm is infectious (in addition to providing a good overview of the film's production). There is also a pair of audio commentaries. The first features the "crew," including the director, producer, editor, production designer, and FX guy. It's a fine track, but most of the material is covered in the documentary. The cast commentary, featuring the director and four of his actors is a more joking affair that avoids the problems of the previous track.
Damned by Dawn is one of those horror debuts that doesn't quite succeed but still heralds the arrival of a new talent. Writer/director Brett Anstey is someone to watch out for in the near future, even if Damned by Dawn is probably only worth a rental to most horror fans.
I think I hear the Banshee calling for Damned by Dawn.
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