Is there anything as frustrating as the missed opportunity of a vision compromised? Screening at the Dead by Dawn festival, writer/director David Cholewa’s Dead Shadows is a jigsaw puzzle where the audience are unfortunately missing several key pieces, leaving them with an incomplete picture whilst revealing enough to indicate that were the full work to be revealed it would certainly be a more promising and ambitious debut than that of many established directors, made all the more of an achievement by the fact that this is an independent picture.
Despite growing up in a comfortable Parisian suburb, Chris did not have a happy childhood, suffering from nightmares and a paralysing fear of the dark, culminating in the night when, during an argument, his father slashed his mother with a kitchen knife. Now working as a home based software support engineer in a rough area of the city, as well as his Raiders of the Lost Ark and Escape from New York posters Chris still surrounds himself with lights, taking medication to manage his anxiety.
Overhearing his neighbours arguing, Chris sparks up with the Bohemian artist Claire shortly after she has thrown her boyfriend out, and she invites him to the next block for an “apocalypse party,” celebrating the closest approach of a comet to the Earth, with all the associated predictions of doom traditionally associated with celestial phenomena through history. Yet with anxiety increasing on the streets, from drunks claiming it is the return of an alien menace to the casual cruelty of children torturing insects, as the skies over Paris begin to boil at sunset Chris begins to feel sick and finds a patch of darkened skin, a strange bruise he cannot account for…
Dead Shadows falls in the twilight zone between science fiction and horror, one the province of rationality and analysis, the other the fear of the unknown and what may lurk within it. From the claustrophobia of a packed city on a hot summer day, the energy of the young and carefree as they party with nothing to lose before the immediacy of the unfolding siege, the atmosphere of the film is effective, and visually, from the object first falling out of the bubbling blackness of space to begin its voyage across through nebulae to the peaceful blue Earth and the horrifyingly convincing makeup of the rapidly decomposing infected, the horror aspects are all addressed, but the film is unbalanced, incomplete.
After the slow setup, moving all the pieces into place, when the lights go out, it too rapidly devolves into random street brawling as Chris and one man army John try to get back to the party to find Claire. No connection is made between the mutations and the comet, how the infection is spread or whether there is a purpose behind the invasion, nor are the hints that this may be a repeat visitation – the military are already mobilised before the closest passage, and in the opening scenes, the shadows of tentacles are seen on the walls of Chris’ house – followed up in any way.
As Chris, the film hangs on Fabian Wolfrom, also in his feature debut, and his striking features convey a youthful bravado over a constantly running river of fear, while Blandine Marmigère’s Claire is suitably Parisian, complicated and impulsive, a wilful free spirit, though unfortunately lacking a strong instinct for self-preservation even when handed a gun. Conversely, John Fallon despite his extensive experience, is asked to do little beyond demonstrate his affinity for a variety of weapons, at which he is remarkably adept.
In conversation, Chowela has confirmed that the film as conceived with a more complete narrative, but frustrations during the production process necessitated that certain scenes be omitted which would have covered some of this ground, but what has been presented demonstrates that he is able to create engaging characters and convincing action, and should he be given free reign without compromise, his second film will hopefully allow him to fulfil his undeniable potential.