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By Joshua Grover-David Patterson | August 12, 2004

Good old vampire movies. The horror staple of the low-budget filmmaker.

Think about it. What kind of horror flick is cheaper, with the exception of the “stalker in the woods” genre? A few fake teeth, corn syrup, red dye, and hey, we’ve got a vampire flick going on here.

There are even a couple of different ways to deal with the vampires. You can go the traditional route, following the basic principles of vampire lore going all the way back to the novel “Dracula,” or any one of its many film incarnations.

Or you can make up your own rules. Can’t afford night shoots? Vampires can walk in sunlight.

This movie is one of the second kind.

Well, actually, it isn’t, because most of the time, those films turn out kind of dopey. Shot on the cheap. Not clever, not interesting, just a lot of stalking and screaming, and something nubile to keep people watching long after they should have cried “lame!” and hit the stop button.

This is an exceptional film, one that reinvents the vampire genre in ways I’ve never seen before.

“Dawn” is both the title and the title character. She’s a vampire, and she is nine years old. Her father, who is not a vampire, spends his days driving her from one end of the country to the other, so that she can feed.

And here’s what gives the film its kick.

Sitting in the car just outside of a park, Dawn turns to her father and says, “There’s someone here in bad pain. I can feel it.”

Vampires, in this rejuvenation of a very tired genre, only feed on the elderly and sick. Rather than living lives as vengeful killers, they help people shuffle off their mortal coil quietly and painlessly.

It’s sweet, really, though it would be easier to deal with if biting and sucking weren’t involved.

As Dawn and her father continue on their travels, she asks for her tenth birthday present. She wants to see her mother’s grave, which is located in Laverne, Oklahoma. She hasn’t been there since her mother died in childbirth, almost ten years ago.

Unfortunately, this means they are about to cross paths with Reed, a psychic suffering from muscular dystrophy. He knows that vampires exist, and he knows one killed his mother. What he doesn’t know is that Dawn’s mother was the one who killed her.

To give away this particular twist seems unfair to an audience who has yet to see the film, but I do it to make an important point. This is not a film about twists, although there are a few others.

This is a film about heart, love and family.

You see, Dawn’s father isn’t a vampire. He meets Dawn’s mother while on the verge of suicide, and she offers, not unkindly, to take away his pain. Their romance is a little twisted, but it’s also sweet, and even somewhat romantic.

Dawn’s father obviously genuinely cares for her. Faced with a wife and child who easily could be classified as monsters, he accepts them and loves them for what they are, not in spite of what they are.

There’re a number of details that many lesser vampire films would have glossed over. How does Dawn hide her fangs? Simple, Dad was in dental school for three years, and knows how to make her a false set that hides her real set. Why not eat real food? It’s poison to vampires. Why not drink animal blood, or blood bank blood? It has to be human blood drunk from a living being.

And then there’s how father and daughter handle her feedings, which involves a system that’s wonderfully thought out and just plain cool.

But for all the good there is in this film, there’s a flaw, and it’s big. The acting. It is, for the most part, atrocious.

The father is pretty good, and so, thankfully, is Dawn. Reed is, for the most part, solid and believable.

But the rest of the cast members often are painful to watch, as they try to get through their lines as well as they possibly can. Which is none too well.

Also, the editing sometimes is much choppier than it needs to be, as it attempts to amp up the horror end of the film. The film is disturbing enough, and simply doesn’t need the jump cuts to add to it.

Both of these issues, however, shouldn’t stop anyone who’s looking for a different type of vampire movie. This film is clever, and warm. Some of the gags, like the Goth girl who thinks she’s a vamp (“I even drank blood once,” she proudly announces) are laugh-out-loud funny. And the ending, which easily could have dissolved into cornball, tugs at the heartstrings just as strongly as any drama I’ve seen over the past few years.

At long last, a vampire film the whole family can enjoy.

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