There’s something especially terrifying about stories featuring people under attack in rural areas. The distance that isolation creates between the protagonists and the outside world creates an added layer of fear...
...Anyone who’s ever lived deep in the country, gone on a primitive camping trip, or had their car break down in the middle of nowhere knows how scary it is when you can’t get in touch with the outside world during a crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that so many horror films make use of isolated settings to tell their stories. Uncork’d Entertainment’s Dead by Dawn, directed by Sean Cain and written by Cain and Wes Laurie, is one film that hopes to bank on that fear.
Dead by Dawn is the story of two strangers brought together by chance. Trapped in a cabin, they have to fend off a savage attack launched by a group of three killers. The film opens with Lulu (Drew Mitchell), a peace-loving pushover, reciting a mantra and practicing yoga in her living room. We quickly discover that Lulu is living with her deadbeat boyfriend (Bobby Slaski) who has a habit of physically and emotionally abusing her. After the couple fight over Lulu’s decision to go back to college, Lulu orders a rideshare to her uncle’s costume party, but she never makes it.
Flash forward an unspecified amount of time to meet Dylan (Kelcey Watson), who has made his way out to an isolated cabin to drink whiskey and end his life. Just as Dylan puts his gun in his mouth, he hears a woman screaming from outside. At the door, he finds a bloodied and bruised Lulu, who’s running from a group of three people out to kill her. As he tries to coax her story out of her, that same trio of killers comes knocking at his door. That’s the first time Dylan comes face-to-face with Neil (Bo Burroughs), Chad (Timothy Muskatell), and Snack (Jamie Bernadette). Dylan and Lulu must band together to survive the night and fight for their lives against this sadistic posse.
Though the plot of Dead by Dawn might seem simple, there’s a lot going on. Through the actions taken against Lulu, the film is able to tackle topics like the male gaze and toxic masculinity. Everyone from her boyfriend to Neil and Chad want to control Lulu, own her body, and do with her what they please. I was surprised by how well Dead by Dawn touches on these subjects in a way that is overt, and yet completely unspoken. Threads about how we hold ourselves back, our unwillingness to forgive ourselves, and our need to take back power in our lives are all seamlessly woven throughout the story.
Despite the elevated themes, Dead by Dawn has a serious tonal issue in the writing and performances that gives it a Syfy channel vibe. I’ll preface that last statement by saying that Sean Cain has written and directed several movies for SyFy, so it’s probably intentional. There are moments of humor, both in the dialogue and in the performances of the actors, that seem out of place when set against the more serious points in the film. I don’t have an issue with a fun horror flick (in fact, I love ‘em), but it seems Dead by Dawn isn’t willing to commit one way or the other.
The tonal issue that permeates the movie bleeds into the acting as well. Bo Burroughs and Jamie Bernadette play the role of sex-crazed sadistic killers perfectly. In fact, I think Burroughs might have been born for a role like Neil, managing to channel a psychotic energy into his entire performance, even down to his facial expressions. On the other hand, Kelcey Watson and Drew Mitchell both give middling performances. Each has moments where they shine, but those moments are undercut by some of their less than spectacular scenes. I would be remiss if I forgot Timothy Muskatell, who plays the bumbling, tagalong Chad with the grace of a Marx brother, but also seems like he’s in an entirely different movie than the rest of the cast.
I can put up with cheesy acting and dialogue for a satisfying ending, especially if it’s one I didn’t see coming, but Dead by Dawn doesn’t quite deliver on that front. Sure, Lulu completes her character arc, but it comes so abruptly and so late in the story that it almost feels like an afterthought. The ending isn’t unexpected; it isn’t even all that powerful. For a movie with such rich themes, Dead by Dawn failed to give the delivery I was hoping for.
By Tim Beirne