In Irish folklore, the banshee is a female spirit who lords over the demise of members of a specific family or clan “lucky” enough to merit her attention. This harbinger of death is known for her bone-chilling cries carried by the howling wind, most often heard in the days leading up to some unfortunate soul’s passing, warning others of their clansmen or family member’s impending demise. While the banshee has made its way into pop culture via avenues such as videogames and comic books, somewhat surprisingly I can’t seem to recall any horror films exploiting what would seem to be a turnkey premise. That is, until Brett Anstey’s Raimi-inspired low-budget Australian import, Damned by Dawn.
Claire (Renee Wilner) and Paul (Danny Alder) are returning to Claire’s childhood home in rural Australia to be with her family for her dying Nana’s (Dawn Klingberg) final hours. Nana, while obviously at death’s door, is surprisingly chipper, and very happy to see her granddaughter there as, weeks before, she’d sent Claire a special urn for safekeeping, with instructions to bring it back to the farmstead when the time came. While Paul gets to know Claire’s eccentric family, including her dad, Bill (Peter Stratford), and hottie sister, Jen (Taryn Eva), Nana tells Claire the tale of the wailing woman, an apparition who mourns the dead, crying crimson tears as her blood curdling screams fill the night. She also warns Claire that she mustn’t interfere with the banshee when she comes, lest she unleash the wrath of the spirit world upon them all. Claire, of course, thinks these are the rantings of an old woman in the throes of dementia. Later that night, however, when she is awakened by a shrill cry in the distance, Claire goes to check on her Nana only to find that the banshee has indeed come to claim her. In spite of her Nana’s warnings. Claire tries to save her from the wailing woman, and, as a result, she and her family find themselves besieged by a small army of shrieking wraiths, skeletal beasties, and all manner of undead baddies.
Damned by Dawn gets off to a hell of a good start, with some really effective jump scares and a very intriguing premise, but, sadly, things go south rather quickly, with an overabundance of shoddy CGI work, a distracting overuse of fog and shadow effects, and a schizophrenic third act that can’t quite decide whether or not it wants to be balls-out horror or Raimi-esque farce. I can see why Anstey felt he needed to go with CGI, here, as I imagine it’d be difficult to make a film about flying wraiths using only practical effects, but the results are so unconvincing that it would have been better had he taken a page from his obvious inspiration, The Evil Dead, and simply not have shown us the wraiths at all. What’s even more unfortunate is that the film’s stars turn in some genuinely good performances, and the composition and cinematography is downright beautiful at times (at least when it’s not obscured by swirling computer generated fog!). It’s frustrating as there’s a really good movie in here somewhere, but, sadly, it’s buried beneath ambition and videogame cut-scene level special effects.
The Blu-ray from Image looks quite good, with a solid 1080p transfer that boasts exceptional levels of detail at times, and a remarkable sense of depth and dimension. Colors are a bit muted as the palette seems to lean toward washed-out blues and grays, but the occasional reds and more vibrant colors pop nicely, and stand in sharp contrast to the deep, rich blacks. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is equally impressive, with an all-encompassing surround mix and some truly aggressive bass. The wail of the banshee will knock your socks off (and, if you’re like me, wake your two year old) as it travels across the soundfield. Technically, this is a fantastic Blu-ray presentation. If only the film lived up to it!
Extras include a feature-length commentary track with Anstey and his crew, as well as a second, more festive commentary featuring the principal cast. Also included is a lengthy and quite informative making-of documentary entitled Making the Damned Film, as well as the film’s original trailer.
I’m sad to report that I was really disappointed by Damned by Dawn. I’d long ago seen footage from the film and it really piqued my interest as it looked to be a charming throwback/homage to both Raimi’s classic Dead films as well as the early works of Peter Jackson. While there are occasional hints of genius, and I’ve no doubt that Anstey could do wonders with either a bigger budget or lower aspirations, the end result here is an only mildly entertaining diversion sabotaged by bad visual effects and a general lack of focus. Image, on the other hand, have given the film a fantastic treatment, with an above average visual presentation, excellent audio, and a nice collection of extras that are more entertaining than the actual film, itself. It's worth a rental so long as keep your expectations in check.