Banshees have been seriously underused in ghost cinema, the few that have appeared being only marginally related to the legend — or best forgotten. Banshees have an unique and evocative presence in folklore and myth, however, supernaturally mourning the passing of family members and heralding the coming of the Grim Reaper. Sometimes they were considered more malicious than that, and inevitably the more pro-active side of their activities is most likely to be the one taken up by filmmakers. Yet, though the memorable coming of the wailing female spectre in Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) heralds the approach of Death’s carriage and is hence more passively traditional, the scene remains the single most shiveringly remembered moment in that film and in the cinematic history of the banshee.
Still, I’ve always felt that Banshee lore could translate better to film — with its visual and auditory strengths — than has been managed so far.
In recent times there have been several independent films focusing on the banshee — Cry of the Banshee (US-2009; dir. Bennett Pellington) utilises Irish mythology, while Banshee!!! (US-2008; dir. Colin Theys) and Banshee (US-2009; dir. Emil Novak and Mike Bohatch) deal with grotesque, inhuman creatures that kill using soundwaves, effectively turning the spectral Banshee into a straight-out monster. Others are in development. The new Australian film Damned by Dawn (Aust-2009; dir. Brett Anstey), however, is definitely ahead of the Banshee game, transferring the Irish mythology downunder (not inappropriately, given Australia’s history) and more-or-less intact, while flinging its characters into the sort of in-your-face supernatural confrontation that the title’s evocation of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn suggests (though I should add that while the film stylistically references Raimi’s iconic blood-and-guts fury, it nevertheless has a definite ghostly ambiance of its own). Here it is not so much that the banshee is a demonic figure as in other banshee films (despite becoming so thanks to circumstances), but rather that when its role in the passing of the dying is interrupted, the consequences are dire.
Claire (Renee Willner) arrives home from the City — home being a rather gothic farmstead in the Australian countryside, atypically gloomy and fog-shrouded for an antipodean location, but convincingly atmospheric nevertheless. With her comes her boyfriend Paul (Danny Alder), who thus gets to meet the family: her father (Peter Stratford), sister Jen (Taryn Eva), and her aging grandmother Nana (Dawn Klingberg). Unfortunately Nana is on her death-bed and she uses her last few breaths to warn Claire against interfering with the Banshee spirit that must inevitably come to fetch her soul, while giving her a mysterious vase and admonishing her to make sure it is kept far away from the house. Claire ignores her on both counts and as a result the Banshee’s cry raises the dead — who are not only numerous but also rather pissed off and bloodily grumpy. Gore and mayhem ensues.
For a low-budget flick, Damned By Dawn (a title that’s a pun, if you consider that Nana’s name is actually Dawn) is a remarkably effective piece of visual spookery, both atmospheric and blood-splattered, with lots of fog, an evocative script, and ghostly FX that rely on make-up rather than CGI. What there is of the latter is fairly primitive, but director Anstey is careful to make sure that, generally speaking, what rapid movement and quick glimpses don’t hide, the fog and shadows will. I think you’d have to be a little over-determined to be nit-picky to get offended by the lack of a large-scale SFX budget here, given that Anstey and his crew do so well with low-budget techniques and CGI figures that look a little like skeletal puppets. The film is beautifully filmed — clear and detailed, despite being set mainly at night — with good acting, strong cutting and narrative pace, plenty of chills and suspense, and sound FX that will drill the spookiness into the back of your skull. Bridget Neval as the Banshee gets my top vote for creating that rare beast, a new, strongly effective horror character.
With its Hammer Horror ambiance and Evil Dead appreciation of blood-and-guts hauntings, Dawned By Dawn deserves to be seen by a much wider audience than the brief screenings it’s had so far at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and at Screamfest. The independent film is one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen for a while, with a hybrid old-fashioned/modern sensibility and the sort of well-paced narrative movement that too many Hollywood films forgo in order to numb the audience with rapid-cut hysteria. It should garner an enthusiastic cult audience without too much trouble.