Reviewed by Michael Miller
Dead by Dawn available on DVD and Digital April 7th, 2020
I’ve spent almost the entirety of my life as a horror movie fanatic. My earliest recollection of being exposed to the horror genre was when I was 3 and the trailer for Larry Cohen’s 1974 film, It’s Alive, aired on TV. Trailers back then were different than they are now and the trailer for It’s Alive is a perfect example. The trailer starts out simply enough-a baby’s bassinet is slowly turning while a wordless lullaby is playing in the background. As the bassinet comes back around, the music becomes more ominous and as the bassinet completes it’s turn, we see a monstrous claw dangling over its edge.
Scared the bejeesus out of me.
I remember having nightmares of that bassinet rolling into my room in the middle of the night, the claw hanging over its side. I know my mother really appreciated my screams as I ran out of the room and jumped into bed with her. It couldn’t have bothered her too bad because I was later taken to the theater to see Jaws (4yrs old), The Shining (9yrs old) and I was allowed to watch the 1979 CBS miniseries, Salem’s Lot (7yrs old). Thanks, mom!
I’m now in my 40s and after almost a lifetime of horror movie exposure, I’m able to recognize certain traits, patterns if you will, of films. Every genre (action, western, comedy, horror, sci-fi, drama, thriller) has a subgenre. For example, Aliens (1986), which at its core falls into the sci-fi genre, has 2 subgenres: horror and action. Friday the 13th, Halloween, Scream are all classified as part of the horror genre but also have their own subgenre: slasher. In the case of Scream, it could be argued that it has 2 subgenres: slasher and comedy.
In the 70’s, several horror films graced the silver screen that would fall under the ‘rape/revenge’ subgenre. Some of the more popular examples of these types of horror films are; I Spit on Your Grave (1978), The Last House on the Left (1972), Deliverance (1972) and Straw Dogs (1971). These films can also be classified as drama/thriller, but they do contain elements that can put them firmly in the horror genre.
Which brings me to Sean Cain’s film, Dead by Dawn (release date April 7th, 2020).
Dead by Dawn tells the story of Dylan (Kelcey Watson), a suicidal man, who suddenly finds himself protecting a young woman, Lulu (Drew Lindsey Mitchell), from three, incredibly twisted individuals; Neil (Bo Burroughs), Snack (Jamie Bernadette) and Chad (Timothy Muskatell).
The film opens with a brief scene of a violent struggle between 3 unknown individuals, then cuts to the title of the film, followed by “One week earlier” when we’re introduced to one of our two protagonists, Lulu.
Lulu is an artist as well as a victim of an abusive (and budding rapist) boyfriend, Shane (Bobby Slaski). The two are planning to attend her uncle’s Halloween costume party but, after Shane loses his cool and backhands Lulu because she provoked him by applying to a college, Lulu walks out on him. She contacts “Kart” (an Uber-type service) to pick her up and transport her to her uncle’s party. When her ride arrives, it’s quickly evident that the driver has his own issues.
The film then segues to a cabin in the woods where we’re introduced to our other protagonist, Dylan. Through flashbacks, it’s determined that something tragic has happened to Dylan’s family and we learn he intends to join his family via a Glock in the mouth. However, before he’s able to pull the trigger, fate intervenes. A frantic pounding at this front door interrupts his plan and when he opens the door, Lulu comes rushing in, beaten and bloody, begging for his help. Dylan finds himself protecting Lulu against three sexual deviants who plan to rape (again) and kill Lulu, who’s managed to barely escape their clutches.
I can’t divulge much more of the plot without giving away some of the surprises that the director has cooked up for you. However, just know that what follows is a tense and harrowing game of cat and mouse as the would-be murdering rapists attempt to gain access to the cabin while our two protagonists come up with a plan of their own.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed this movie and I believe most of you will as well. It’s easy for those of us who’ve never made a film to sit back and nitpick all the faults we may discover as we watch an amateur film. Taken as a whole, Dead by Dawn is the perfect homage to those rape/revenge films of the 70’s…especially Wes Craven’s first feature film, 1972’s The Last House on the Left. Craven was later labeled as a Master of Horror but if you look back at LHOTL, it has ‘amateur’ written all over it. At the time, LHOTL was labeled as offensive due to its content but compared to today’s horror films, it really is quite tame, content notwithstanding.
Highlights of Dead by Dawn include the acting talents of Kelcey Watson’s Dylan, Bo Burroughs’ Neil and Jamie Bernadette’s Snack. Watson’s portrayal of a man devastated by the loss of his family willing to commit the ultimate act of selfishness by committing suicide is incredible. Watching his character go from utter despair to a man willing to give his all to protect a stranger from a horrific fate, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his range as an actor. I certainly hope to see more of him in future films as he shows that with more refining, he could be a successful actor.
A horror or slasher film is only as good as it’s villain or, in the case of Dead by Dawn, villains. Burroughs’ Neil and Bernadette’s Snack attack their roles with relish and really seem to be enjoying themselves as they chew up their scenes with great aplomb. While their portrayals of the villains were a bit over the top, they still managed to convey the viciousness that their characters were capable of and what was required for this type of film.
By contrast, Drew Lindsey Mitchell’s portrayal of Lulu and Timothy Muskatell’s portrayal of Chad could have used better direction. Mitchell’s delivery of her lines went from what was required for that of a victim in a horrific situation to almost laughably bad when her character was required to fight back against her attackers. Muskatell’s performance as Chad was just all over the place which was possibly the director’s intent. However, I found myself confused as to what we were supposed to be feeling regarding Muskatell’s character; sympathy, disgust, anger, humor, all the above? Each of the other characters’ roles and motivations were clearly defined whereas the character of Chad was more of a head scratcher.
There were a few minor, laughable issues with the film’s story overall, such as a particularly weird moment where it felt as if either the director or perhaps an actor, wanted to insert a moment of vegetarian awareness. Overall, though, I found the film to be very enjoyable and at times, incredibly engaging. Perhaps Sean Cain, with more experience, may become this generation’s Wes Craven or John Carpenter.
Time will tell.