Studio: Wildseed Studios
Director: Drew Casson
Writer: Jesse Cleverly, Drew Casson
Producer: Miles Bullough, Jesse Cleverly
Stars: Bethan Leadley, Cherry Wallis, Stuart Ashen, Drew Casson, Tom Scarlett, Sam Carter, Paul Neafcy, Jamie Paul, Mawaan Rizwan, Georgia Bradley, Mark Cusack
Two sisters join a nomad band of underground survivors in the wake of a devastating alien attack on London.
I remember when festival founder Denise Gossett walked into the auditorium and out loud expressed “owwhhh” with the heartfelt pout of a mother sympathetic at seeing her confused child crying about a beloved toy breaking. “Hungerford” (review here) was the late Friday feature at Shriekfest 2014 and a disappointing turnout of one, maybe two-dozen people speckled the seats.
That’s not necessarily out of the ordinary for indie entertainment events. At another festival, I was one of just nine people present for a movie whose only crime was being poorly programmed against several more popular alternatives. In “Hungerford’s” case, its main disadvantage was being British and not having the filmmaker in attendance.
Los Angeles-based festivals featuring films with L.A. casts and crews can count on local friends and family to sell out a showing should all else fail. With no one on hand for promotion, “Hungerford” didn’t have the dukes to fight for the attention of Hollywood moviegoers in an October fully stacked with genre film options.
It’s too bad attendance was low, because “Hungerford” turned out to be one of Shriekfest’s most enjoyable films. More people might echo that sentiment had they taken a chance on it.
Maybe they didn’t because “Hungerford” has additional strikes in its Con column for being “found footage,” low budget, and featuring a cast of unknowns. But the exhibition of young filmmakers fighting tooth and nail to make a sci-fi epic out of scraps is incredibly admirable. “Hungerford” has warts. What movie at that level doesn’t? Yet no one could accuse it of not putting its best foot forward, even if that foot stubs toes on some spotty performances and sometimes subpar staging.
“The Darkest Dawn” is a sequel to “Hungerford.” One of its chief drawbacks is trying to attract new eyes by dropping its former “Hungerford II” association and forcing itself to fit as a standalone story.
That doesn’t work. Unaware of the connection, people going in blind are likely to be bewildered about how an alien invasion progresses from initial assault to Mad Max wasteland in less than 12 minutes. They won’t fare any better with wondering why they should care about the sudden arrival of a trio searching for the fourth corner to their quartet, or the logic stretch justifying continued use of the first-person format.
The alien invasion that decimated Hungerford has spread throughout London and beyond. Bugs that burrow into bodies and take over human hosts have killed countless citizens while survivors have taken refuge in subterranean tunnels.
16-year-old Chloe, recent recipient of a video camera to juice up her interest in journalism, is driven underground with big sister Sam. The two young women cross paths with Cowen, Kip, and Adam, still searching for lost friend Phil since the first film’s conclusion. Together, everyone embarks on a trip through the rubble above, encountering vicious vagabonds, cutthroat soldiers, and alien enemies while Chloe’s camera covers it all.
“Hungerford” earned leeway for its early acts because it had to establish its setting and situation, going for a slowly built storyline whose pace made sense for the setup. With “The Darkest Dawn” starting when interplanetary war is already at full tilt, its drawn-out exposition cheats to fill the runtime without having to depict the all-consuming chaos outside.
Chloe, Cowen, and their crew spend a solid third of the movie squatting in a tunnel. The longer their talking head interactions go on against bland backgrounds, the more a desire develops to return above ground where pulse beams are leveling buildings and trigger-happy troops are taking out insects and infected. Sustaining audience interest isn’t easy when you give them a taste of intensity and then take it away, replacing action with shoehorned heart-to-heart conversations.
What I appreciate about “The Darkest Dawn” and “Hungerford” is how director Drew Casson dares to do something different with “found footage.” An alien invasion requiring believable CGI doesn’t afford the same forgiving safety net of a cheapo cursed woods/asylum investigation that can get away with night-vision nonsense and blurry blackness. Casson puts crumbling buildings and laser rays front and center and pulls it off as convincingly as can be done for a nickel and a dime.
Part of Casson’s ability to do that comes from masking seams within the “found footage” frame. However, the fiction has a hard time fitting the format when it was already a stretch the first time around. Even if you forgive the implausibility of Chloe continuing to record everything no matter what craziness is encountered, you still scratch your scalp over why people assume the duty in her absence, or how fortuitously the camera frames a scene when it falls to a stationary position on the ground.
“The Darkest Dawn” comes across as less measured and more unfocused than “Hungerford.” Performances are a little forced. Plotting seems thin. Amateur edges aren’t hidden as well. Where “Hungerford” felt like a true passion project, “The Darkest Dawn” reads more like a lark.
Those who haven’t seen “Hungerford” would be better off changing that fact before dipping into “The Darkest Dawn.” Newbies are primed for confusion at best and disappointment at worst. People who enjoyed “Hungerford” on the other hand, may find value in this add-on epilogue.
I see plenty of homegrown micro-budget movies by no-talent nobodies. Drew Casson is not in this category. He doesn’t always have the full means to execute on what he envisions, but intentions take his ideas a large part of the way. This particular effort merely pulls up short as underwhelming. Should a third film recapture the energetic enthusiasm of the first film though, I’d still gladly give this world another go.
Review Score: 55