Dead by Dawn (2020)

At one’s first read of the film’s logline: A suicidal man in a remote cabin is suddenly faced with protecting a kidnapped woman from three sexual deviants and their sadistic games,” you think you’re getting a by-the-numbers extreme horror film of the New French Extremity variety. (See the recently reviewed (and very good) German radio-horror flick, Radio Silence, as an example.)

Ah, but what you’re really getting is a loose film noir—a very violent film noir of a double-crossed victim and a reluctant anti-hero trapped in a downward spiral, bowtied in a home invasion-siege picture that updates Ingmar Bergman’s granddaddy of rape-invasion-revenge movies: 1960’s The Virgin Spring.

Lulu (the great in her film debut Drew Lindsey Mitchell) is one of those sweet girls with self-esteem issues that goes for the bad boy. And her controlling boyfriend Shane blows a gasket when she decides to go back to college to finish her degree. Then, when she heads off in a rideshare to a Halloween party hosted by her (closeted pervert that pines for her) Uncle Chad, she’s besieged again by a clown-costumed, masturbating pervert. . . .

That leads to Lulu dragging her bruised and bloodied body onto the front porch of a remote forest cabin, where she interrupts the suicidal owner, Dylan (Kelcey Waston), who was just about to eat a bullet for breakfast. Then the portly-businessman Uncle Chad shows up at the cabin with his ex-cellmate Neil—and a bogus story that Lulu is an autistic that ran away from their car accident. And why is that Goth-chick sneaking around the cabin?

Dylan soon discovers Uncle Chad, Neil, and Neil’s leather-clad squeeze, Snack, gang raped and beat Lulu at the Halloween party—a party set up for that sole purpose. And based on that can of gasoline and the remote location: they were planning to depose of Lulu. So begins the night-long siege. Can a man depleted of the will to live for himself, find the will to protect the life of a stranger? Will Dylan and Lulu be . . . dead by dawn? Not if those booby-traps Dylan and Lulu tinkered based on the zombie defense guide written by Dylan’s deceased young daughter—who was the catalyst for his wanting to commit suicide in the first place.

I appreciate the skilled, creative choices writer-director Sean Cain made with Dead by Dawn.

While the title, in conjunction with its theatrical one-sheet, is a tip o’ the hat to the Sam Raimi sequel, the film doesn’t follow that expected cabin-in-the-woods route. Cain could have easily cheapened the film’s suspense by having Lulu’s obviously violent kidnap-torture-rape and her terrifying bound n’ gagged trip in the SUV on-camera; he keeps it expositional. There also seems to be a loose homage to Night of the Living in Lulu’s character—not the 1968 George Romero version, but the 1990 Tom Savini remake: Lulu is analogous to that film’s stronger-determined Barbara portrayed by Patricia Tallman. Lulu not turning into a catatonic or hysterical mess—and discovering her inner strength—is a bonus.

In addition, Dylan’s daughter saving his life “from the beyond,” not as a supernatural deus ex machina zombie or J-Horror yūrei, but via her zombie-hobby, is a refreshing, appreciated twist-of-the-script by Sean Cain’s bright pen (well, laptop keyboard). Lastly, Cain opted to not to take the put-a-star-name-on-the box-to-encourage-rental route; he allowed his unknown cast—featuring the effective Bo Burroughs as the ski-capped psycho Neil, Timothy Muskatell as the squishy-sleazy Uncle Chad, and Bobby Slaski as the abusive hubby, Shane—illuminate the dark, foreboding woods.

This is my first exposure to the acting career of Kelcey Waston. He’s worked on a wide variety of shorts, indie films and web series since the early 2000s. But you may have seen him on the SyFy Channel with Sean Cain’s previous effort, Jurassic City (2015), the Eric Roberts-starring Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs (2015), and the post-apocalypse romp, Road Wars (2015)—so, as you can see, Watson’s a busy actor.

And solid actor. He turns in a major-studio level performance. I also appreciate the fact that his race had no bearing on his casting. There’s no racial subtext to the story; writer-director Sean Cain cast Waston simply because he’s a good actor and was the best actor to convey the character—and that’s what its all about: the acting. And Waston throws those acting cards down on the table and cleans up the chips.

Equally excellent in her co-starring role is Jamie Bernadette (TV’s NCIS: New Orleans), who admirably held her own against Camille Keaton in 2019’s I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu, as the crazy, leather-clad morbid-bitch, Snack. You’ve also seen her on your Lifetime Channel excursions with 2018’s The Wrong Teacher. She has a whopping fifteen other films in various states of production. You don’t get cast that often if you’re bad at your job. She really delivers the goods.

Writer and director Sean Cain has an intense, extensive resume. While Dead by Dawn is his tenth film in those dual-disciplines (you may have, along with Jurassic City, stumbled into one of those films on the SyFy Channel), he tuned his Steenbeck chops with the Lifetime Channel’s endless catalog of prefixed “Killer,” “Nightmare,” “Perfect,” and “Pscyho,” and “Wrong” damsel-in-distress potboilers, along with editing a slew of documentary vignettes for Blu-ray reboots of popular films.

Dead by Dawn is available from Uncork’d Entertainment on all online streaming and PPV platforms and DVD in the U.S on April 7. Currently, you can purchase DVDs at Amazon and Family Video (both as a rental and purchase) and stream it on iTunes and Vudu. Plans are in place to also offer Dead by Dawn on Comcast, DirectTV, Dish, Fandango Now, GooglePlay, Spectrum, and Xbox. Visit Uncork’d on Facebook for the latest news on their releases. You can learn more about Sean Cain’s Velvet Hammer Films on their Facebook page.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

Disclaimer: This movie was sent to us by its PR department. As always: you know that has nothing to do with our feelings on the movie.

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