The Dawn, as the name ominously implies, is simply a measurement of survival, some mythic moment when all will be well, when the nightmare will end. Can you make it to the dawn? The question should be, can you make it through the dawn? This film is hampered right from the start. There is something wrong in a school system where a dead student lying in the hallway doesn’t elicit some serious police investigation and staff intervention. There is also something dangerously wide of the mark in a culture where the students who find the sliced up kid don’t seem that upset, but that’s a whole big sociological debate that’s way over the head of this pic. The film soon picks up as our wanton group of college students head off to the woods for a weekend academic retreat to study the sacrificial rituals of indigenous cultures. Sounds like the perfect breeding ground for psychos, substance abuse and sex scenes.
The premise of The Dawn is not the problem. The execution, however, is a whole other issue. Frankly I was intrigued with the idea of watching a psychotic serial killer slowly pick off a group of students on school sponsored study trip. I was kinda hopeful that the film would be like Summer School of the Evil Dead. Toss a who’s who of clichéd students into a cabin in the woods (God know that’s never been done before) and watch them try to survive the night – bring on the booze, blood and babes. But let’s face facts here, if you guess the killer’s identity halfway through the film you may be slow but you’d probably be right. Now take notice for a second, I said probably – because if you assume you know something, then you’d be ignoring the preposterous left field twist that’s coming to fuck the whole movie up.
The really tragic thing about The Dawn is that the beginning and ending completely ruin what is actually a halfway decent character piece disguised as a slasher film. Sure the students run the gamut from shy genius guy and feisty girl trying to make a better life for herself to the smack talking pimp ass muthafucka and a couple of requisite Lesbians, but the performances from the totally unknown cast bring those stereotypes to life in surprisingly genuine and often hilarious fashion. The dialogue spouted by the post-Scream era hipsters is more closely matched to real conversation than anything I’ve seen on film lately. The actors are naturalistic and smooth and when all the inevitable hell breaks loose they practically shit themselves with panic and immediately start pointing the finger at everyone around them. That’s the kind of stuff usually missing from today’s self-referential pop culture horror films. I genuinely believed that these kids were scared to death. But then the damn ending had to totally blow the film. By trying to throw the audience for a loop, the final frames only manage to undo everything good about the prior hour of the film.
I can’t even bring myself to mention the unnecessary and trite postscript. It showed a lack of imagination so profound that I seriously question now whether all the great dialogue the cast spewed was even scripted. Maybe this film deserves more respect for the brilliant improv of its’ principals. I just don’t know what to say except that you see this ending, bar minimum, a dozen times a year. Simply put, if I were in this flick and that was the ending they proposed to me, I’m not sure I’d want to be one of the characters to see the dawn both literally and figuratively
In retrospect it seems like the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes were the only straightforward scripted filmmaking that occurred and the rest of the movie was just Robert Altman-esque riffing. Whether that is the case or not means very little in the realm of poor productions, which is a shame. By bookending a fairly interesting film with lame scenarios, The Dawn manages to undermine the best thing it had going for it – the performances.