Film: Damned By Dawn **
Release date: 7th March 2011
Running time: 81 mins
Director: Brett Anstey
Starring: Renee Willner, Bridget Neval, Dawn Klingberg, Danny Alder, Taryn Eva
Damned by Dawn was a huge crowd-pleaser at the Film4 FrightFest in 2010, managing to delight horror movie fans with a yearning for the type of inventive and entertaining horror-comedy shenanigans not seen since Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009). Written and directed by Brett Anstey, his debut feature, it follows on from his short-film Atomic Spitballs, oddly way back in 2004. With five years between gigs, his latest offering must be more polished than a Salvation Army Brass Band…
Claire (Renee Willner) drags her reluctant new boyfriend, Paul (Danny Alder) off to a remote house in the countryside to meet her family after receiving a mysterious package from her terminally ill grandmother (Dawn Klingberg).
Curious to learn more about the strange gift, an urn, Claire is instead left bemused by her gran, medicated up to her eyeballs, whose ramblings about the arrival of a female spirit to escort her feeble body into the afterlife annoy rather than explain.
As a violent thunderstorm rocks the house, everyone other than the grandmother are awoken by a succession of piercing, otherworldly shrieks; the cries of a banshee, summoning the dead to rise again, thus beginning a terrifying ordeal for Claire and her family as the army of undead unleash their fury upon the living…
To paraphrase the quote at that start of this film: Oh, how we mournfully wail, in the midst of the silent, lonely, lonely night; lamenting, we sing the song of death, unless we hit the eject button and watch something more entertaining instead. This is, perhaps, doing Brett Anstey an injustice, as Damned by Dawn actually opens fairly well, providing a couple of neat chills and a soundtrack that will, at the very least, result in neighbours dialing for the emergency services.
Ignoring the quite ridiculous make-up worn by Dawn Klingberg, Grandma’s spooky yackety-yak sets up the noteworthy arrival of a screaming banshee (turn the volume up really loud) that suggests this could be one hell of a ride. Sadly, other than a scene following shortly after, a delicious yet quite random act of violence from Claire, nothing can halt the viewer’s slide from edge of the seat to lying comatose on the lounge floor.
Things quickly devolve into a tiresome retread of the Evil Dead trilogy, without the fun. Flattened by mediocre editing from the outset (the kitchen scene involving Claire’s out-of-synch father asking for help is amateurish to say the least) and some poor dialogue (“I saw it, it was here… this face, this evil face…”), Damned by Dawn is left dead and buried way before the introduction of a computer generated skeleton so pedestrian it makes Ray Harryhausen’s creations look state of the art.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Anstey went for Raimi’s comedy jugular, but a script lacking in distasteful bloodshed contradicts the feel of the film, never quite deciding whether it wants to be taken seriously or not. The sound and visuals are decent enough, even if the repetitive wailing of the banshee, one of the film’s few highlights, eventually begins to grate. It may look bleak, but corridors that offer no fear thanks to shots that linger in the wrong place for far too long, effects wasted in scenes that offer little progress, and a screenplay that has more holes than the belt you may wish to tie around your neck halfway through, creates a movie that surely can’t be resurrected.
Thank the lord for Renee Willner, then. Yes, she may be worried that her terminally ill grandmother has been kidnapped (a premise even more ridiculous than an angry banshee raising the dead), and there’s a lazy nightmare sequence that questions her ability to sleep through such trauma, but she does make an irresistible piece of eye candy, for the boys at least. The remaining cast, mere fodder, are so frustratingly bland you’ll be thankful when the slaughtering finally starts. Our lead may have more personality in her left foot, but it wouldn’t hurt for the director to care about the others a little bit more.
You would also expect him to have watched and taken a few notes from successful scare-fests, but on this evidence, as another shadow glides across the screen, whether it be in the background or right in the viewer’s face, the fear of the unknown is left floundering in a sea of cheap scares, while its calls for help are continuously drowned out by the increasingly head-splitting soundtrack.
When the action switches from stalk-and-scare to a rubbish first person computer game perspective with our hero fending off the skeleton intent on doing him harm, you know that Damned by Dawn is more doomed than Doom. Claire’s lame attempts to fight off her by now very dead boyfriend is laughable (she’s no action hero), and you can’t help but wonder how it’s so hard to hide from a banshee with a larger set of lungs than Susan Boyle.
There’s still time for a daft voiceover encouraging our protagonist to return to the farmhouse and finish what she started (including a genuinely impressive car journey through flying ghouls), and at least Anstey has mastered the art of paying off a set-up involving a fox trap, but he doesn’t explain how the best way to defeat the dead is to knock them unconscious. By the time Claire tries to rectify her mistake by granting her grandmother her dying wish, you’ll be bored of the wailing, craving some intentional humour, and longing for some uncivilized bloodshed.
Polished brass will pass upon more people than rough gold, but Damned By Dawn doesn’t scrub up well despite boasting a number of efficient chills and a wonderfully atmospheric world. Dropping the ball in the monster department, with woeful dialogue and characters with no common sense, this is a film that will leave the audience wailing louder than the banshee.