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Damned by Dawn

Image // R // November 9, 2010 // Region 0
List Price: $29.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 6, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Evil Dead with a banshee.

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mean, don't fret: I'm going to write a whole review and everything, but those six words cover all the broad strokes of Damned by Dawn.

In most horror flicks, the Big Bad doesn't get skewered until the last couple of minutes. Claire (Renee Willner), meanwhile, has a banshee-ka-bob cooked up before the half-hour mark, shoving the creature out her Nana's window and plunging onto a jagged bit of gate below. Victory, right? That wailing spectre of death isn't going to come for her sweet, elderly grandmother (Dawn Klingberg) after all? Hmmm. By interrupting this ancient and sacred ritual, Claire has damned her grandma, herself, and...well, everyone else in this decaying mansion in some remote stretch of Australia. The banshee has at her beck and call (and wail) legions of the undead that are hellbent on slaughtering everyone in sight. There's only one thing that'll satiate this centuries-old evil, but...well, it involves blood, and the banshee's gotta carve a pretty wide path of destruction before she can get there.

Produced by a gaggle of wide-eyed Super 8 auteurs making their first step up to high-def video, Damned by Dawn generally looks great. This is clearly a very modestly budgeted production, but the movie still looks as if it's sporting a price tag several times heftier than it apparently had, with every dollar and then some winding up on screen. Setting the movie in a rotting mansion definitely sets it apart from just another spam-in-a-cabin flick. Even with as many horror flicks as I've devoured over the past few decades, I don't think I've ever come across a banshee in one before. The look of the creature -- a tattered wedding dress, blackened tongue and teeth, and dried streams of blood from her eyes -- is terrific, and Bridget Neval has a hell of a set of lungs on her to belt out that otherworldly wail. Add in the fog and the legion of gangly, dead trees, and it feels classic rather than some Hot-Topic-nu-metal-look-at-how-edgy-and-extreme-we-are sort of thing. Damned by Dawn attracted a rather strong cast as well: quite capable, instantly likeable, and not a weak link in the bunch. Doesn't hurt that Renee Willner and Taryn Eva are both drop dead gorgeous either. Much the same as The Evil Dead a few decades back, the camerawork is extremely fluid and doesn't
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hesitate to plow head-on into the action, and it's quick to find intriguingly unconventional angles while it's at it.

After plowing through the extras on this Blu-ray disc, it couldn't be clearer that these are people who have filmmaking seared into their souls. I'm sure they appreciate having their movies on store shelves the world over and splashed across sprawling silver screens, but I get the impression they'd be making clever, ambitious films for themselves even if no one else was watching. Their passion and enthusiasm is infectious, and the excerpts shown from their other movies look brilliant beyond words. I really want to catch up with some of their other work, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what they hammer out next. Damned by Dawn, though, is kind of a letdown. Part of the problem is its pace. Like a lot of horror movies, the first third of the movie is a slow burn, establishing the characters and setting up the premise while waiting for all hell to break loose. Damned by Dawn trudges along more slowly in its first act than most, though. It doesn't spend that time gradually ratcheting up the tension, and there aren't a lot of "here it comes...!" jolts to inject a quick adrenaline rush and tease at what's to come. I like the characters but don't feel particularly invested in them, so they can't really shoulder so much of the movie by their lonesome. I kind of just sat there smiling politely and waiting for something to happen.

Even when the whole damning-by-dawn thing does get underway, the pacing still feels way off. Despite its cramped setting, there's not that sense of claustrophobia -- of feeling hopelessly trapped -- that I get from most of my favorite horror movies. The attacks feel few and far between. There aren't a lot of near-misses or intense setups, and the chases don't strike me as frenzied so much. Quite a bit of the time, either the setup of an attack is largely off-screen or the assault itself happens off-camera. I'm not asking for graphic torture or buckets of gore to be sloshed around, but I just feel as if I'm being kept at arm's length from a lot of the havoc that's supposed to be wreaked here. The banshee is executed remarkably well in the movie, yet her undead flunkies are the threat we see the most, and they're a lot blander and sometimes rendered with weak CGI. To be fair, the undead were originally practical creations that just didn't work when composited in, and with most of it tackled by just one guy, the CG can still be considered every bit as personal and handcrafted. Some of it's just not very good at all, though, and geez, do they go nuts slathering on that digital fog... It's
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borderline-impossible not to compare Damned by Dawn to The Evil Dead, and one of the things Sam Raimi did so brilliantly is never ease up on the throttle. Once that primordial, ancient force has beeen awakened, The Evil Dead is unrelenting. Damned by Dawn...well, kinda relents a lot. There's just not that same sort of manic energy...that inescapable threat of death and dismemberment. There are a couple of dementedly grisly moments, like one poor schlub being hung by his intestines or flying wraiths splattering against a speeding car's windshield, but it feels as if Damned by Dawn can't decide if it wants to be atmospheric horror cut from the Hammer cloth or a Peter Jackson splatterfest, and it settles into some uncomfortable ground in the middle instead.

The extras on this Blu-ray disc devote a good bit of time to the inspiration drawn from Hammer's flavor of gothic horror, and...yeah, I can see that. A beautiful undead creature with piercing red eyes, thick blankets of fog, a crumbling mansion: I mean, lose the Ford Fiesta, the pizza run, and the TV sets, and you could pretty much transplant the entire thing to Victorian England without missing a beat. The cast and crew chat about Hammer but don't say all that much about The Evil Dead, and that's odd considering what an obvious touchstone it is for this movie. The ram-o-cam cinematography is nicked straight out of the Sam Raimi playbook. The framing and composition of some shots seem to be lifted practically verbatim, I swear that some stretches of the score are direct quotes, undead loved ones even chant "join us" in the home stretch, there's also a more-or-less Book of the Dead, and the climax swirls around a St. Christopher's medal, an urn, and a savage beating that plays like a blurry fax of The Evil Dead screenplay. An homage is one thing, but honestly, Damned by Dawn draws so deeply from The Evil Dead that I felt kind of uneasy watching it at times. Since The Evil Dead has already scored a world-class release on Blu-ray and does pretty much the same thing here, only tackled much better, why settle? My vote'd be to grab The Evil Dead instead and rent Damned by Dawn if you can't resist. Rent It.

Damned by Dawn also looks kinda underwhelming on Blu-ray, I have to admit. The movie was shot natively on HD video but apparently not on the most bleeding-edge of gear. I was initially fairly impressed by the crispness and detail, but from there, the image is often flat, somewhat soft, and ensnared in a milky haze. Dimly-lit interiors seem to suffer the worst. The horrific banding that
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pops up in some of the fades and storm clouds is more unnerving than any of the jolts in the movie itself, and a few stray shots look harsh and oversharpened. The palette is generally limited to overcast grays and cold, steely blues, a look that quickly grows stale, and black levels wind up feeling kinda lackluster. It's definitely a leg up over what DVD can belt out, but Damned by Dawn still falls below average for what I'd expect even out of a microbudget indie horror flick.

Damned by Dawn is served up on a single layer Blu-ray disc, and its 1.78:1 video has been encoded with AVC.

The parade of mediocre ratings keep marching on, I'm sad to say. Damned by Dawn is packing 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and all, but it doesn't sound all that big or cinematic. The movie's dialogue sounds flat and lifeless, with some stretches coming across as kind of clipped. None of the effects pack all that much of a wallop. I mean, thunder coaxes a light rumble from the sub, and a flurry of zombie punches are reinforced with a little bass, sure, but the effects aren't particularly full-bodied. The dynamics I've come to expect out of a horror flick just aren't here. Surround use is somewhat sparse as well. Some swirling voices encircle their prey, the banshee's wail takes advantage of all the different channels at its fingertips, and I really dug there way the screams of flying wraiths panned around as Claire plowed through 'em in a tiny little sedan. There really isn't much of that sort of thing, though. I like some of the smaller touches, such as the subtle crumbling in the interior of a mine shaft, but I didn't find this track to be all that immersive, and the whole thing feels kind of subdued for a horror movie even given its light budget. If I'd waltzed into the room with my eyes closed, I'd have no trouble believing I was listening to a DVD rather than a shiny, newly-minted Blu-ray disc.

No subs or dubs this time around. The only other audio options are the two commentary tracks.

  • Making the Damned Film (56 min.; SD): Damned by Dawn's hour-long making-of documentary is easily the best thing about this disc, and...well, that includes the movie itself, really. It opens with snippets from twenty years' worth of Amazing Krypto
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    Bros. productions, and there's more ambition in that minute-long montage than in entire summers of Hollywood blockbusters. After that, the doc settles into how Damned by Dawn got off the ground, including its microscopic budget, starting off as a period piece, and explaining the allure of a banshee as its chief beastie. "Making the Damned Film" tears into one brilliant story after another: feeding the cast dog food and frozen vegetables to get genuine disgusted reactions in a scene that ultimately went unused, collecting boxes and mattresses for the movie's one big stunt, rows of eerie dead trees winding up being completely torched before they could be filmed, a two-ton generator almost tumbling off a cliff, bloodcurdling screams not getting all that much of a reaction from the police station across the street, cockroach wrangling, crafting the makeup of the banshee and one zombie...loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it. Excerpts from a few deleted scenes are briefly glimpsed here but, for whatever reason, aren't presented in full elsewhere on the disc.

  • Audio Commentaries: Damned by Dawn piles on two commentary tracks: one with the crew and another with the cast. First up is a commentary with writer/director Brett Anstey, producer Luke Gibson, editor/associate producer Dave Redman, production designer David Jackson, and....errr, chief fog wrangler Darren Maxwell. A bunch of truly amazing stories are lobbed out here, and the only downside is that...well, I already heard them all in the making-of doc. Its inability to set itself apart from "Making the Damned Film" saps pretty much all of the fun out of this track. There are still a few great comments worth noting -- self-electrocution, glow-in-the-dark catering from some dodgy late-nite pub, dolling up Luke's 11 year old stepson in a wig and a nightie to double for a woman more than six times his age, the recipe for ghost guts, and technical chatter about lights used and the number of visual effects shots -- but as personable as this track is, there's just not enough unique content here to scream out for a listen.

    On the other hand, the cast commentary makes it a point to sidestep that sort of overlap, and this one does deserve a spin. Anstey returns for this track, joined here by Renee Willner, Dawn Klingberg, Bridget Neval, Peter Stratford, and Taryn Eva. It's one of those lively and laughing tracks, and among the highlights are having to change the names of all the prescription drugs on Nana's nightstand in post, a button on a table that'd tear into an unstoppable 20 minute history lesson, writing a cave into this movie from a completely different project that never went anywhere, and Brett bombarding his own car with dog food and sour milk. They do talk over themselves sometimes which gets to be a headache near the end, but that's not a constant nuisance. Definitely still worth it.

    Trailer (2 min.; SD): Last up is a standard-def theatrical trailer.

The Final Word
I was in awe of the snippets of the other Amazing Krypto Bros. films that were whipped out in this Blu-ray disc's making-of doc: visually dazzling, hyperambitious, and packing an impressively clever sense of humor to boot. It's a shame Damned by Dawn doesn't live up to all that. This Evil-Dead-with-a-banshee flick has a lot of the right elements at its fingertips -- inspired cinematography, a solid cast, and a creature that's never really gotten its due in horror -- but the end result winds up feeling kinda bland and uninvolving instead of screaming ahead with the sort of Sam Raimi-meets-Peter Jackson manic energy I was expecting. Damned by Dawn is by no means a bad movie, but disappointingly, there's just not enough here to warrant much of a recommendation either. Rent It.
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