Dead By Dawn adopts tropes from a range of horror sub-genres - torture porn, invasion, survivalist - and attempts to merge them in a product heavy on ambition, but light in execution. Uneven characters, and an even more uneven tone (attempting comedic breaks within a story that implies rape and family grooming just isn’t smart), prevents the film from adhering to its dark mentality, and instead coming off like an amateur production that hoped having a nasty personality would be enough to overcome its cheap aesthetic.
Sean Cain, whose other credits include such “gems” as Jurassic City and Terror Birds, seems to know his limitations as a filmmaker, and at least doesn’t attempt anything beyond what the story deserves. But in having such control of the story (he also serves as co-producer and editor), one would assume (or hope) that he’d be able to rein in his performers. There’s an uncomfortable tonal imbalance throughout, seemingly indicating that screenwriter Wes Laurie’s take on Cain’s own suggested storyline wasn’t in cohesion with what the director intended. Given that his previous directorial efforts dealt with outlandish narratives, Dead By Dawn could have really given Cain the opportunity to sink his teeth into such depraved material.
The home invasion-turned-survivalist sub-genre is one that has treated horror particularly well over the years (The Strangers, Don’t Breathe, and You’re Next all prime examples), so adopting this trope, as unoriginal it may be, should have resulted in something genuinely tense. The story earns points for trying to shake up the expected, with the intended victim (Drew Lindsay Mitchell’s Lulu) unintentionally involving a suicidal recluse (Kelcey Watson’s Dylan) when she momentarily escapes her attackers, finding his cabin on her run to safety. The idea of a man ready to remove himself from the world finding purpose in saving a complete stranger isn’t the most obvious for the genre, and given how sympathetic the two are painted - not to mention how horrifically evil her attackers are portrayed - it assists in the story’s attempt to inject a sense of heart among the horror.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Though the script is never particularly in their favour, Mitchell and Watson prove satisfactory enough as Dead By Dawn’s centre. Both aren’t given the most detailed background, though from the opening moments of Mitchell’s exchange with her volatile boyfriend (Bobby Slaski), we understand her strength is predetermined, given she’s in a relationship that suggests domestic violence. Where the film truly falters is in its depiction of its villains, specifically the characters of Chad (Timothy Muskatell), who also happens to be Lulu’s uncle (yep, dark!), and Snack (Jamie Bernadette). Chad, who apparently has been grooming Lulu for an extended period of time, never presents himself as someone cunning enough to execute such a plan - his disgust at Snack and her beau (Bo Burroughs) is played for “comedy” at times - whilst Snack is far too overdone, with Bernadette seemingly under the impression that in order to sell crazy she has to tap into camp-fuelled crudeness; one sequence where she is practicing her knife-branding skills is laughable, to say the least.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Perhaps because the script is painful at times, and the acting even more so, I was too distracted to take note of these particular aspects. Never at a time did the score rouse any reaction, seemingly playing into the film’s amateurish tone.
As the film descends into Home Alone-style madness, where Lulu and Dylan rig his cabin with a multitude of traps to throw their attackers off guard, it flirts with its share of impressive practical effects; the best pay-off though is Lulu’s parting gift to dear Uncle Chad - let’s just say he’s not going to see it coming. The film never completely commits to this bonkers set-up however, leaving a lot of the blood-work to be particularly standard for the genre.
"Anyone Wanting Genuine Terror Best Look Elsewhere"
Despite potential promise in its harsh-natured narrative, Dead By Dawn can’t overcome a less-than-inspired script and a series of performances that siphon out any of the film’s tension. If you want a lesson in how not to frame your villains, Cain’s horror effort could be a useful exercise, but anyone wanting genuine terror best look elsewhere.