Haunted houses are spaces beyond time...
...Capsules of moments frozen forever in one slowly decaying shell, rotting from the inside even if the outside shines alluringly new. They pull us in with the promise of secrets buried under dust and dead things, whispering to us down the halls and through the flickering lights. They send chills down our spine that pull the common thread of fear and desire. Personally, there can never be enough haunted house movies, but especially never enough Gothic horror. Fortunately, just when it seems like simply not enough people are making Gothic horror anymore, Austrian writer-director Kevin Kopaka’s Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes, co-written with Lili Vilány, came to this year’s Panic Film Fest to prove there’s still power in the genre that transcends time.
Noted as having taken inspiration from the likes of Mario Bava and aiming for a mix of late 60s, early 70s occult aesthetics, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is a perfect example of Gothic horror fever dreams, folding time and story in on itself so many times that reality itself becomes little more than dissipating smoke before our eyes. Three couples, interwoven across time into one sprawling, decaying space, find themselves fighting for freedom from what begins in various scenarios to feel like a trap. Each relationship quickly descends into a chaos echoed through the film’s visuals. From the rapidly intercut flashes of changing women—photosensitive viewers may want to use caution when approaching this film—to the vibrant colors painting scenes of heightened emotion, to the ethereal soundscape, everything about Dawn Breaks leads viewers on a trip that expertly weaves together the tentpoles of the Gothic with the aesthetic of Italian horror.
You can’t quite have the Gothic without a fraying relationship at its center, and the echoing relationships across Dawn Breaks are perfectly primed examples. Dieter (Frederik von Lüttichau), disgruntled that he must rely on his wife Margot (Luisa Taraz) and her family for financial security, blasts his way into her family’s decaying mansion with the bombastic attitude of a man with dollar signs in his eyes looking to rid himself of this gigantic symbol of his own masculine inadequacy. Consequently, he is haunted almost immediately by figures inhabiting the house who aim to drive him headlong toward madness. Margot, meanwhile, is visited by presences more interested in liberating her from the confines of repressing her desires.
Gregor Grause (Jeff Wilbusch), a director renting the mansion to use in his Hammer horror-esque movie, and his partner Eva (Anna Platen), who helped write the screenplay, lean into the atmosphere of their own creation during the film’s wrap party as Grause engages in Manson-cultlike pranks, hallucinogenic drug use, and reckoning with his own potential failure when he begins to recognize weakness in the script. Eva, tired of having her voice ignored and her relationship with Grause pushed to the side for a one-night stand with the film’s lead actress, catches him in bed and decides the relationship and film should come to permanent ends.
The passage of time in Dawn Breaks feels dreamlike almost immediately, and only becomes more so as the stories interweave and dance together behind the doors and hallways of Margot’s mansion. The film’s atmosphere envelopes viewers from the first frame, thanks to the lush conversation between Lukas Dolgner’s cinematography and Kolpaka’s surrealist editing.
The performances across the cast give the impression that absolutely everyone involved in the film was having the time of their lives living out their dreams of 70s Victorian Gothic debauchery, and immediately lure viewers into the lives of the characters. Dieter’s overly aggro masculine attitude clearly draws the lines of who we’re meant to be rooting for, only for that alignment to shift as the story shifts, if only the slightest bit. His rapid descent into madness calls back to Jack Torrance as he ascends the mansion steps with a whip in hand gleefully singing to the tune of his own murderous intent.
Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is perfect for fans of “good for her” Gothic horror, 70s inspired international horror, and all around psychedelic originality in their stories, and is unquestionably one of Panic Fest’s strongest entries. If you can make it, it’s well worth the $15 price of admission.
By Katelyn Nelson