I always appreciate horror films that accomplish a lot with very little, and director Gregg Holtgrewe's Dawning (2009) fits that bill rather nicely. Dawning is an ultra low-budget, rough-around-the-edges affair, but one well worth seeking out if you're in the mood for something off-kilter. Awkwardly-stated, it's sort of The Evil Dead (1983) meets The Blair Witch Project (1999)...only with no special effects and no monsters.
There are monsters in this film, but at times they appear to be of the personal, self-doubting, human variety rather than the demonic one.
In short, Dawning concerns a dysfunctional family that comes together for a weekend retreat in the woods but soon encounters Something Evil.
That evil is either an invisible, monstrous creature that seizes on interpersonal weakness and human foibles, or the Monster from the family's collective Id: the self-doubt of the dramatis personae made manifest; a sense of personal paranoia that grows and grows and roils and roils until murder is the only possible outcome.
Richard, the patriarch of the family and a recovering alcoholic, has separated from Chris and Aurora's mother and is now dating a woman named Laura (Christine Kellogg-Darrin). Meanwhile, Chris is contemplating quitting school, and Aurora is still scarred by her parents' divorce and her father's lack of attention and devotion. Laura feels that his children won't accept her as a substitute for Mom. Each character, then, has some kind of demon to battle, and one which threatens to disturb the familial "peace."
After a time, another disturbance breaks the quiet solitude of the forest night. A mad, armed stranger (Daniel J. Salmen) breaks into the cabin unexpectedly and holds the family at gunpoint. "You can't leave," he tells them. "If you leave, you'll die."
That's as much certainty as Dawning ever grants the audience.
Finally, Chris and Aurora try to reach his car and flee the cabin, but the unseen force pursues.
Soon, dawn will break, but will anyone be left alive to see it?
There are no recognizable actors in Dawning, no monster special effects, no major stunts, and the narrative does not develop in any conventional or recognizable Hollywood fashion.
I reckon the last bit, at least, is a good thing.
Buttressed by an unsettling musical score, some excellent cinematography and a lot of really canny editing, Dawning proves an arresting and suspenseful experience. I've never seen another film deploy this particular technique before, but at several critical junctures during Dawning, characters hear their own worst thoughts vocalized in the voices of their beloved family members.
Now, in the actual cuts, we never actually witness those family members speaking such unkind, ugly words. It's all craftily accomplished so that it becomes plain that the characters are hearing opinions that have never actually been stated by another human being.
Those insults and attacks are either the Monster's doing or simple human insecurities somehow being broadcast. But the effect is insidious: like having a nagging, betraying, personal Iago in your ear at all times, saying just the thing to confirm your own low opinion of yourself.
It's all rather unsettling, and highly imaginative, and Dawning plays diabolically on the idea that something evil is tearing this family unit apart, and that it thrives on division and insecurity. In today's environment, with so much anger and division poisoning the national dialogue, the film also erects a powerful case that we are all hearing our own ugliness echoing in our heads, assuming it comes from others, and then striking back.
As I stated above, it's quite possible there is no monster in the film, just a sweeping, multiplying sense of mistrust and dysfunction. Even the film's revelatory shot -- seen in a flash of lightning -- could be no more than a phantasm. From one point of view, it's as if all the dysfunction of the family coheres into a supernatural entity and then threatens its creator. The component parts of this particular Beast are substance abuse, resentment over divorce, anger over Richard's brand of judgmental machismo and other aspects of interpersonal strife and alienation.
Again, I can't stress enough that Dawning is a really low-budget horror film, one that stretches its meager budget to the fullest, but which can't really show you anything besides some very troubled characters arguing inside a small cabin for eighty minutes. For some viewers, this clearly won't be enough.
Yet Dawning will get under your skin and discomfort you -- in large part because of the ambiguity of the monster -- if you attempt to engage with it and meet it half-way. Given the hostile response by some to The Blair Witch Project, I suspect this film will not play well with everyone precisely because it leaves so much to the imagination, and determinedly defines so little. It's the polar opposite of most genre films being made today. No fast-cuts, no elaborate special effects, and little concentration on grue and guts.
The film's performances are serviceable and sometimes more than that, in the case of the impressive Goslow. But in so many significant ways, Holtgrewe is the real star of Dawning. As a director, he's got a strong eye for composition, and the unique ability to craft frightening images just by carefully observing natural vistas, or holding a shot perhaps a little longer than usual. Dawning ably and gamely plays with form, and as a result doesn't look, feel, or sound like the average, processed genre film.
In fact, it may "dawn" on you during a viewing of Dawning that many genre films of considerably higher budget could learn a thing or two about crafting atmosphere and suspense from this little diamond-in-the-rough.