It would feel a bit mean to be too critical of this earnest, atmospheric horror indie. The build-up is strong, the acting half decent, especially the girls, and the narrative interesting and reasonably coherent if one doesn't think too hard about it. All in all, writer and director Brett Anstey has fashioned a competent little horror story with an original hook and has demonstrated enough talent in his directorial abilities, to warrant future larger budgets. Unfortunately where it does kind of fall apart is exactly due to said lack of experience, finance and perhaps lack of confidence in the good old low budget mantra, to keep things tight and that less is sometimes more. There's a little too much forced exposition at times, the story is strong but does end up rambling, losing its plausibility, and the brilliantly built up, evocative and subtle atmosphere and effects does head a bit too much into b-movie territory where ambition should have been tempered.
Claire (Renee Willner) with her boyfriend Paul (Danny Alder) has returned to the old family farmstead after receiving a mysterious old urn through the post and has learnt from her old da' (Peter Stratford) and younger sister Jen (Taryn Eva) that Nana's not well. Now, it's hard to pick who's most to blame for the events that unfold that evening as Nana (Dawn Klingberg) takes her final breath. On the one hand Claire does push the Banshee that appears, to herald her passing, off the balcony impaling her and thus committing her family to death and eternal damnation. But on the other hand Nana has had nearly seventy years to prepare for the events that would unfold and has done a damn fine job of not getting everyone up to speed. Either way; a curse on the O'Neills line means that on their passing, a Banshee will appear, wail quite a bit and everyone should leave her alone. What they shouldn't do, under any circumstances, at all, absolutely not, is interfere, accost her, or say, push her off a balcony. Ooops.
The Banshee, or "woman of the sídhe" or "woman of the fairy mounds", is a female spirit seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the underworld (thanks wiki). With bloodshot eyes from crying out for centuries the 'keener' or fairy woman, according to Irish legend, appears in a white gown to lament (Irish: to wail) the passing of one the six great Gaelic families, of which the O'Neills is one. Played by Bridget Neval she's mysterious and frightening, her wail unearthly and harrowing and her appearance is haunting and coherent. Like many films that begin with an old legend the writer / director soon decides to deviate from folklore however, and that's probably where the film starts to also deviate from plausibility and starts trying a tad too hard.
I've now read quite a bit about Banshee's (at least two articles) and everything so far fits. The thing is, and I do understand the need for artistic embellishment in film making, I've not really found much reference to an army of the undead being awoken and her going on a blood fuelled rampage should her wail be disturbed. After being re-killed the undead spirits she summons from the ground are skeletal which is ok, as I can go with the fact they've been buried a long time. They all also seem to have scythes to wield which again I guess is fair enough, as they were probably farm hands. The thing I couldn't really get behind though, was the fact they were flying. It's jarring, a bit daft looking, and it's made considerably worse with the poor CG and effects that make them about as coherent and cohesive as a brick in a yogurt. Admittedly they're not that much more artificial looking than the bonies in Warm Bodies or even the zompires in I Am Legend but they're so jarring in a film full of subtlety and nuance that they come very close to breaking the whole illusion on their own.
Zombies? They're reanimated skeletal remains under the control of the Banshee so probably not in any strict sense. Paul however, back as a staggering cockroach infested corpse out for revenge most definitely is, in a revenant kind of way anyway. The sister too makes a return, albeit extremely briefly, gurgling blood in a zombie way and even the grandmother makes a reappearance as a possessed Evil Dead / Exorcist potty-mouthed cantankerous old hag (though she may have been like this before she was damned). There's lots of ideas and it all looks good and helps the film entertain but if I'm honest it feels a bit thrown together as if with twenty minutes to fill they weren't quite sure how to deliver the shocks they'd been building towards.
I liked Damned by Dawn. I actually watched it twice, and even enjoyed it more the second time. It's competent, has some great build up and scares and an interesting premise that's well played around well with. The plot does meander and lose its way somewhat, but the central story arch does get back on point and it does hold interest. Anstey certainly has an eye for suspense and build up if not necessarily the ability to deliver on it. Constant corner of the eye, shadow, snapshot imagery and the subtle and clever use of sound deliver a truly spooky experience and I found myself often cowering behind a cushion or momentarily bereft of skin, and if he could have kept to what he undoubtedly does best all would have been well. The thing is, ultimately when it comes to delivering on all evocative teasing, the big action scenes feel tragically forced, immodest and even a little incongruous. They never not deliver; it's just things never feel quite right. Would I recommend it? Sure, why not? You'll be promoting low budget horror production and you'll be in for a well-produced jumpy hour and a half's fun; just brace yourself for hover-zombies, 5/10.