Dawning (2009) – By Cary Conley

Two siblings, Chris and Aurora, are going to meet their father and new step-mother in the family cabin. Nestled deep in the woods, the four are hoping for a quiet weekend that may begin to mend the pain each family member has. As Chris and Aurora enter the cabin, it is evident that there is a great deal of tension between the four. But as the evening progresses, strange and unnatural occurrences work at these cracks, widening them, and begin to tear the unstable family apart. Will the four survive the night as a family? Will they survive the night at all? Though billed as horror, Dawning is much more of a family drama, perhaps with supernatural overtones, than a horror film.

Chris and Aurora are college-aged kids whose parents split up while they were in junior high school. Their alcoholic father, Richard, has been a primarily absent parent throughout their lives, and even when he was around, he was usually drunk, so the two don’t have many fond memories of him. Now Richard has married another woman, Laura. While no one ever comes out and says so, the implication is that Laura helped break up Richard’s first marriage. So right from the outset, this family gathering is filled with tension. It doesn’t help that the kids are meeting Richard and Laura in the old family cabin, which Laura has redecorated. Even the family dog has been relegated to the great outdooors, something that never happened before. This family clearly has much fence-mending to do.

Things take a turn for the worse when the dog is attacked by something in the woods. Mortally wounded, Richard and Chris must put the dog down. Aurora, clearly the angriest and least mature of the group, is devastated by this turn of events and isn’t about to forgive Laura not only for insisting the dog be kept outside, but also for not wanting to try to get the dog to the vet ("It’s too far–she’ll never make it," Laura says). But before the wounded family can deal with this situation, a bloodied stranger barges into the cabin. Clearly upset, maybe psychotic, the stranger describes a mysterious force that killed his girlfriend and attacked him. He barely survived the attack and luckily saw the cabin, which probably saved his life. A fight ensues whereby the stranger ends up with Richard’s rifle and holds the family hostage. He’s on edge, with rolling eyes and disheveled hair, and he is constantly looking around in a paranoid state, asking, "Did you hear that?" The eerie noises of the woods at nighttime make it hard to distinguish between natural and unnatural sounds, but soon enough, the family has succumbed to the stranger’s paranoia and they believe they hear weird noises as well. As the paranoia increases, so does the resentment. Richard and Laura are clearly conservatives and Richard thinks they should shoot the trespasser as he might be dangerous. The more liberal Chris thinks they should heed the stranger’s warning and listen to his story, while Aurora is reduced to a sniveling and annoying brat (not surprising as she whines and pouts irritatingly throughout the beginning of the movie).

One by one, the family exits the cabin for one reason or another. Sending the stranger outside by gunpoint, Richard soon follows him when the stranger tries to take their car. When Richard doesn’t return, Laura–with some ugly accusations towards the kids–goes in search of her new husband. Once Laura doesn’t return, Chris goes in search for them both.

Will anyone survive this night? Is there something supernatural, perhaps alien, wandering the woods? Is the stranger telling the truth or just covering up the murder of his girlfriend? The ending is left open, as Aurora runs through the forest; perhaps she will survive, perhaps not.

Dawning is a pretty decent little romp through paranoia similar to Polanski’s Repulsion. Filmed for just over $100,000, writer/director Gregg Holtgrewe knows his financial limitations. He has written a film with a single setting and an ensemble cast of five. But Holtgrewe also has written a strong script with strong characters and hired quality actors as well, so the sum adds up to being more than its parts. Each character has issues they need to deal with personally but they all must somehow deal with family issues as well. Richard seems like a good guy, but he obviously wasn’t a great parent and he is still battling his alcoholism. On the outside, Laura seems to be supportive of Richard, but is really a bit on the controlling side. It is obvious that she wants to rid the family of their painful past, but is it for their own good or for hers? Redecorating the cabin and establishing new ground rules for the family pet seems a bit on the shrewish side. Chris seems to be pretty laid back, but he is clearly harboring some resentment for his father even while he desperately craves his father’s acceptance. And Aurora came to the cabin itching for a fight, with no real intention of helping anyone to heal. She is angry and miserable and intends on making everyone else miserable as well. But throw in the addition of a possibly crazed stranger as well as some kind of unnatural force lurking in the woods, and this family is doomed.

As the film moves toward its climax, it progresses from a sense of paranoia into the realm of the supernatural. The members of the group who disappeared now reappear, almost as apparitions, in the forest. Chris and Aurora manage to escape the cabin, with Chris driving recklessly in a heavy downpour down a very dark lane. For the second time that night, something mysterious dashes in front of the car, but this time a combination of fear, exhaustion and weather cause Chris to lose control. Chris is trapped in the car and seems to be fighting something–is it his seatbelt or perhaps a mysterious force trying to gain control of his mind? He screams for Aurora to run, which leads to a spectacularly spooky image of Aurora running through what looks like a tunnel of thick woods, the only light coming from the car wreck and lighting her from behind. The image is both iconic and deliciously scary. Will Aurora survive the rest of the night, or is the force already chasing her? This final sequence, while totally original, also brought to mind images of The Evil Dead, with supernatural forces chasing its victims through the trees.

The soundtrack is highly effective and serves to increase the feeling of paranoia and inevitable doom these unfortunate people are experiencing. The cinematography is also very nice, with some gorgeous, sweeping shots of forest and mountains. While the acting is generally good, it can range in places from excellent to merely average. The character of Aurora can also be a bit annoying, but that may be more due to writing than to acting. Nevertheless, on the whole, I enjoyed Dawning as a unique horror/drama about a family that experiences some decidedly odd circumstances and examines how that family deals with their issues.

Dawning is being released by Breaking Glass Pictures’ horror label, Vicious Circle. It has been busily playing the festival circuit and has taken several awards like Best Screenplay as well as the Audience Award (2009 Solstice Film Festival), Best Picture (2009 Rhode Island International Film Festival), and the Silver Ace Award at the 2010 Las Vegas Film Festival. For more information, see breakingglasspictures.com or dawningthemovie.com.