Move over zombies – the vampires want to share in your sad cinematic state of affairs. Like their cannibal corpse cousins, the neck-biting brotherhood (with the occasionally sexy sister) has fallen under the underdeveloped auspices of the homemade moviemaker. You know the kind – camcorder in hand, a cadre of friends and family eager to help out, a limited lifetime of horror fandom desperate to get out of their collective geek noggins. As they do with the flesh eating fiends, those intent on dramatizing the plight of the blood drinker can be divided into several camps: the traditionalists, the satirists, the revisionists, etc. In their mind, these mythic monsters are timeless, capable of taking any narrative twist and surviving with gruesome grace. That's not the situation with Dawn, writer/director Jay Reel's reinvention of the Nosferatu narrative. He hopes that by making the myth more down to earth and realistic, he can amplify the legend's dramatic and thematic conceits. What he manages is something more disappointing than different.
Dawn is a ten year old little girl, and constantly on the move with her well-meaning father. Traveling from town to town, motel to campground, this vagabond pair need to keep plenty of pavement in their rear-view mirror. You see, Dawn is a 'hunter', a kind of human/vampire combo. She doesn't suffer from the celebrated maladies associated with 'the children of the night', but she does need blood to survive, and has to kill to get it. Ever the vigilant guardian, Dad does what he can, finding places where Dawn can feed, and helping her with the clean up and disposal of evidence. With a trail of bodies all over the Southwest, the duo have to be careful – especially now. Carlton Reed, noted psychic, has been called in to consult on the most recent of Dawn's deaths, and his investigation is as personal as it is professional. There's a connection between the child, it's 'hunter' mother, and Reed's own family, and the seer is set on uncovering the truth. But he better do it quickly. Dawn is developing quite a temper, and she's not about to let anyone stop her in her quest for food.
Let's start off by saying something nice about the vapid vampire movie Dawn, as it may end up the only positive statement in the entire review. Visually, the monochrome image looks really nice. Not exactly the sharpest black and white cinematography on the planet, but slightly atmospheric nonetheless. Now, with that out of the way, it needs to be said that the decision to go single-hued was a horrible miscalculation by first time director Jay Reel. Guaranteeing that any gore would be inky instead of icky, and all tone tempered by varying shades of gray, the unusual looking auteur must believe that such a simple cinematic style will invoke something somber and serious. Instead, like the rest of the film, it evokes tedium and snoring. For 99 numbing minutes, we are forced to wade through overlong flashbacks, unexplained dream sequences, endless conversations, and the most unrealistic gathering of children ever captured on film. For a decidedly no-budget offering, Reel does get some decent performances. But his actors are lost inside a sentimental storyline that tries to rewrite the vampire rulebook while probing the parent/bloodsucker paradigm.
Much of the movie is far too pat to be plausible. Our little Dawn only kills the elderly or sick people, those who she "senses" are in pain and longing for eternal peace. Her murderous munching is down to a ritualized science, including Handiwipes, toothpaste, and prosthetic teeth to hide her elongated incisors. Dad readies the family car with garbage bags and duct tape, and when all is said and done, a local rest stop acts as the perfect place for our underage neckbiter to get her groom on. After nearly a decade of such criminal claret collecting, you'd think that our leads would have all the angles figured out. But apparently, a psychic with cerebral palsy (who usually specializes in lost pets) is easily able to connect with and identify the child. Only he can put two and two together. Sure, some folks find him crazy, while others view him as creepy, but Carlton Reed (as played by Reel himself) has his own unique narrative issues. As a "hero" he is horrible, lacking anything remotely gallant. Instead, he's more twisted than the evil he is chasing. He's also so closely connected to the case (in one of the movie's more lax logistical concepts, Reed's mother was killed by Dawn's mom on the very day that the little girl was born) that he makes ridiculously rash decisions. Not the best way to endear yourself to the viewing audience.
If, however, he's viewed as the villain, a malformed man of malevolence out for revenge…well, Reel fails at that as well. Reed is just too slight to be anything sinister or scary. While it's clear that the standard horror histrionics are the last thing on this director's mind, cinema still thrives on tension. Sadly, none exists in Dawn. Our little lady vampire occasionally gets her dander up (she punches out a tree, and breaks a bully's hand) but, overall, she's merely sad and pathetic. Dad, on the other hand, is only around for the exposition. Without his constant clarifications and plot points, we'd never be able to understand Reel's core concepts. In fact, the purpose behind the entire endeavor is shaky at best. Most fans of the macabre love to free-associate on ways of reworking, or in this case, 'revamping', the standard scare classics. The zombie gets a lot of this low budget interference, turned into icons both meaningful and dense in the hands of dozens of homemade filmmakers. But Reel just doesn't want to destroy Dracula, he wants to create his own creature as well. His "hunters" are not light sensitive, cotton kindly to garlic and crosses, and don't change their victims into members of the undead (kind of takes all the fun out of it, right?). Instead, they are merely mutants, the byproduct of a billion years of gene pool plundering.
By removing the romanticism, the erotic undercurrent and immortal angst from the vampire legend, Reel emasculates his reinvention. We never fear Dawn, never worry that she'll turn and go gonzo on her father or townsfolk. Instead, she's just a scared and confused little kid who would rather play games and eat junk food (blood and water are all she can have – everything else is poisonous to her system) than seek out veins to drain. She's an interesting creation, and handled properly, in a film that wasn't a terribly talky meandering mess, she could become a kind of indie icon, a girl power persona with an animalistic instinct to feed. Sadly, there is no such level of imagination in Dawn's droning drama. As scene after scene unspools in tired tedium, we hope there is a point to it all. But when the end arrives, it is telegraphed, trite and lacking any kind of emotional heft. Had we cared about our leads, or their lonely lot in life, the final scene would be startling in its bleakness and bitterness. Instead, we can see through the ruse, realizing that Reel is simply trying to be different for difference's sake. Someone should have told him he had nothing new or novel to add really. Perhaps as an allegory about the moment fathers lose their little girls, Dawn has some stogy symbolism. Otherwise, the only fear that exists is how 'frightfully' dull it all is.
A camcorder production in its purest form, Tempe's transfer of the 1.33:1 monochrome image is decent, if unexceptional. Compared to true black and white film however, Dawn's analogy attributes don't hold up. The contrasts are fuzzy, and there is no clear distinction between lights and darks. This is typical of tape, unable to achieve the grainy greatness of old fashioned B&W. As stated before, this is more a collection of graying gradients than a true neo noir-ish presentation.
As with any movie this mired in endless chatting, Dawn relies on its Dolby Digital Stereo mix to deliver discernible dialogue and clear conversations. It more or less succeeds. There is, however, very little mood or ambience to the overall effort – and without such sonic support, no horror film truly works.
Along with a gag reel, hosted by Reel and featuring appearances from several members of the cast, and a selection of trailers, the only other bonus feature is a full length audio commentary. Present for the detailed discussion are Reel, director of photography Mark Sawyer and actors Ray Boucher (Dad) and Kacie Young (Dawn). All seem really happy with the final product, and offer little anecdotes about participating in such a financially limited labor of love. Reel is especially eager to share his views on film and the numerous pitfalls that can arise during production. As a lesson in low budget moviemaking, this alternate narrative is very interesting. It doesn't make Dawn any more watchable, however.
At first, this derivative Dr. Acula drivel was going to earn a stern, stark Skip It. Monotony, and it's accompanying emotional components of irritation and aggravation were all this critic experienced during Dawn's so-called experiment in post-modern macabre. Yet there will be those who view this entire effort as something of a novelty, and won't mind a few amateurish turns along the way. As long as the fright flick is new, different and insular, they'll buy into it for a while. For them, anything involving the legendary bloodsuckers and their toothy tendencies is reason enough to rejoice. Therefore, in the spirit of reconciliation over rejection, a score of Rent It will be awarded. But mind this major caveat – there is really nothing original about this parent/problem child dynamic. Sure, there may be a little neck nibbling involved, and the ending is as fatalistic as it is flimsy, but this is really just a purposeless road movie without a lick of suspense, or moment of sense. Jay Reel may actually have some talent as a writer and filmmaker. You would never know it by watching Dawn, however. It's a thoroughly unsatisfying experience.
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