HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Thursday, October 28, 2010

DAMNED BY DAWN -- DVD review by porfle

The DVD cover blurb for DAMNED BY DAWN (2009) states "Sick of waiting for EVIL DEAD 4?  Check out Damned by Dawn."  Well, not quite.  But it is about half of the spookiest movie I've seen in quite a while. 

Not that director and co-writer Brett Anstey, along with his filmmaking co-horts who call themselves The Amazing Krypto Bros., aren't going for a Sam Raimi vibe here, because they are.  It's just that they aren't quite capable of delivering the kind of balls-out gut-wrenching terror fest that the original EVIL DEAD was when it first came out.  Not for the entire running time anyway.  What they do manage to achieve to a certain degree, however, are the kind of good old-fashioned ghostly chills that get under your skin and give you goosebumps.

Though shot in Australia, the isolated setting of DAMNED BY DAWN has the fog-shrouded feel of the English countryside.  It's here that Claire O'Neill (Renee Willner) and her boyfriend Paul (Danny Alder) arrive at the old family estate where she grew up to visit her dying grandmother.  Paul meets Claire's dubious dad, Bill (Peter Stratford), and her bouncy younger sister, Jen (Taryn Eva), before setting off for the nearby village for some pizza.  He almost runs into a ditch at the sight of a spectral figure standing in the road.

Meanwhile, Claire is at Nana's bedside when the old woman begins to tell her a disturbing tale of a banshee who will come for her when she dies.  Claire awakens in the middle of the night to frightening far-off screams, and before long the entire family is beset by the Banshee herself and a host of other undead figures who have risen from the grave.  During a night of terror, Nana is taken away and their efforts to find her result in some grisly deaths.  The survivors attempt to escape the next day but are confronted by an army of the dead at every turn.

An atmosphere of unease begins to build from the very start and sets us up for the kind of scares that used to have us peeking through our fingers when we were kids.  An early shot of the Banshee appearing in an old family photograph during a flash of lightning is just the beginning of a series of chilling jump scares that are truly frightening.  Earlier, when Paul is standing on that dark road after his fleeting vision, a brief glimpse of the white-shrouded spectre floating by in the background should raise a few hackles. 

Director Anstey places her off-center in several shots and lets us discover her slowly approaching figure ourselves as she emerges out of the fog, along with the terrified Claire who watches from a window during the initial siege.  The front door slowly swings open in a swirl of mist, the Banshee enters, and Claire hides in a closet as the ghostly apparition moves through the house.  It's like something out of a child's nightmare, recalling some of our earliest irrational fears and giving us that old familiar shivery feeling. 

The film succeeds in doing so only sporadically from that point forward.  There are some nice shots of zombie-like wraiths floating through the air, one of them wielding a scythe in Grim Reaper fashion as he inexorably pursues his living victims.  These figures begin to lose their effectiveness, however, as the film's reliance on less-than-convincing CGI steadily increases.  Rarely are computer-generated ghosts scary, and DAMNED BY DAWN is no exception. 

The mood is further diminished as the film makes the same mistake that ruined the finale of POLTERGEIST along with many other supernatural films--namely, the belief that ratcheting up the noise level and adding a bunch of flashy effects and frantic activity will increase the scare factor, when, in fact, it has the opposite effect.  Having the Banshee repeatedly break out in prolonged, supersonic screams is also less than terrifying.  As the story goes on, long stretches in which a character creeps around waiting for something to jump out at her tend to further drag the pace of the film's second half.

Still, there are some good moments throughout.  When a shotgun-wielding Claire warily enters an old barn in search of her missing sister, last seen being yanked away from a window by an unseen force, the sequence generates jittery suspense.  The gross-out factor takes front and center with a Raimi-inspired episode in which a character previously hanged by his own intestines shows up in the kitchen the next day, spilling entrails from his gaping stomach and vomiting cockroaches.  Kindly old Nana gets into the act herself later on when she returns as one of the hostile undead in the film's frenetic climax.

For a low-budget effort, DAMNED BY DAWN looks great and is clearly the work of a talented and enthusiastic bunch of filmmakers.  The cast is uniformly good, especially Renee Willner as Claire and Dawn Klingberg as Nana.  Bridget Neval does her best as the Banshee, though the character's effectiveness varies depending mostly on the director and the script.  She's never better than in those early scenes in which her unnerving presence is fleetingly seen.  (Call me weird, but I think she's pretty hot, too.)

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.  No subtitles this time.  Along with the trailer there's a 55-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that is quite engaging.  A crew commentary provides more information on the making of the film, while the cast commentary (most of them are seeing it for the first time) is lively and fun.

Although DAMNED BY DAWN isn't entirely successful and can't maintain its ability to scare us past those chilling early scenes, it's still a worthwhile effort that should please horror fans.  Definitely the sort of thing to liven up your Halloween viewing experience. 

Buy it at

No comments: