Saturday, February 26

Some quick thoughts on horror criticism with a few on Damned by Dawn (2009)

From the back: Spoken of only in fearful whispers, a supernatural force holds a chilling grip over a remote, primitive farming community where Claire (Renee Wilner) arrives to visit her ailing grandmother. On her deathbed, the old woman warns Claire about the cost of interfering with a powerful spirit coming to claim her soul, and when the rest of the family fails to heed these ancient traditions, the dead are called up from their graves for a bloody night of retribution that leaves carnage and monstrous mayhem in its wake! A riveting rollercoaster of terror in the tradition of The Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell!

My damn stubborn ass needs to learn to listen. Before the Interwebs, horror fans had a much harder time deciphering what was worth the effort and what's best left to languish on the video shop shelf. Much of it was trial-and-error toiling away nightly with the VCR. One might end up with a night wasted with insufferable dreck or strike it lucky with the right mood and feature. That's why it's always best to line up a double or triple feature if possible.

One of the greatest assets of having such a connected horror community online, besides nitpicking everything, is the ability weed out the shit from the Shinola. See an unknown title on-demand or buy some horror flick on tape you've never heard of before? Simply type in the title into the Google and you're usually inundated with reviews, comments, and photos of the given movie. It's an amazingly powerful tool for both budding gorehounds still learning the OCD and the aging initiated who refuse to get off our fat asses as much as we should. This Internet backchecking is almost essential nowadays with the ongoing glut of horror available from the dawn of relatively cheap, "prosumer" HD camera and editing equipment over the last few years. Far more so than the VHS era's shot-on-video genre offerings, there's just so damn much homebrew horror to keep up with.

Where am I going with this when pertaining to Damned at Dawn? Well, it reminds me of my experience with Tor Ramsey's (or Karen Wolf's, depending on who you believe) explosion undead suck, Children of the Living Dead back in 2001. Oh, I heard the deluge of negative criticism but no matter, I was going to judge for myself with an open mind. And that's healthy, advisable, and part of the adventure, but perceptions were crushed that particular night. Worst of all, I actually bought that fucker. I repeated that scenario with this generally maligned indie, despite this wailing banshee/flying zombie/fog/more fog thing being superior to that unspeakable 2001 mess. Sometimes it's best to listen. More times than not, the consensus can be trusted.

When the almost hour long making-of featurette on Image Entertainment's DVD is far more engrossing than Damned at Dawn itself, you know something went horribly wrong. Simply put, writer/director Brett Anstey's feature-length debut feels like what a non-horror fan would perceive as what a horror fan would love. A gauntlet of forced chairjumpers, screaming, running, blood, fog, trees, and gunfire. Unfortunately, these potentially fun elements don't come together and there's a distinct ruination of most creativity from the overuse of CG.

Yes, the plot is very much like Raimi's work; however, what makes the Evil Dead series so special is the amazing camerawork, practical effects, and Raimi's ability for seemingly off-the-cuff solutions that bloom with incredibly inventiveness in spite of budget. There's little of that here, instead we get an overabundance of fog overlays and bad looking, goofy flying zombies. This binary reliance is so distracting that everything is substantially dragged down. As if the filmmakers aimed for a gloomy and gothic atmosphere but instead landed firmly in an ugly, tacky spectrum. Damned at Dawn's narrative is also flaky, despite honestly decent acting, with character actions occurring and background information dropping at late, awkward times as Anstey claws to reach ninety minutes.

It's hard to recommend the mostly boring and silly Damned at Dawn. That's tough to say since the surprisingly great making-of genuinely leaves the impression everyone involved had their hearts in the right place--most of all Anstey. Maybe with more work this filmmaker will create something special, but for now, "sick of waiting for Evil Dead 4?" Re-watch the existing three. Sometimes it's best to listen.

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