I firmly believe that the best cure for a cold is to wrap oneself up in a duvet on the sofa and watch Slasher films. It probably works for any kind of film that’s a guilty pleasure, but for me it’s Slashers. Last time I had a cold, I got through the iconic The Burning, the leaden The Slayer, the forgettable The Mutilator (in fact, I had forgotten about it until I started writing this post), the its-got-one brilliant-sequence-in-it-that-makes-it-worth-watching-y The Prowler, the inspired My Bloody Valentine and the entire Sleepaway Camp series. However, I was a bit disappointed I couldn’t find a copy of Just Before Dawn.
Just Before Dawn has been one of those films that I’ve wanted to see for years, but have never managed to get hold of. Just the title is provocative enough for my teenage self to be compelled to watch it, but combine that with the image of the machete wielding hillbilly and it becomes positively irresistible.
Well, I finally got hold of a copy and couldn’t wait until I caught another cold. It was Friday the 13th anyway, so I was pretty much obliged to watch it before attempting to make my way through all ten Friday the 13th movies.
WARNING: May contain spoilers.
This 1981 kids-camping-in-the-woods Slasher was directed by Jeff Lieberman and starred George Kennedy, who, incidentally, seems to have the creakiest clothes possible in this film. Either that or his horse is more elderly than it looks. In general, the film visuals are pretty good, with some colourful sunrises and sunsets and a lovely night scene with George Kennedy lit by the reflections from a forest lake.
The plot, as you might expect, is pretty routine. A gang of five kids made up of Slasher archetypes, a flirty girl keen to take her bikini top off, a bespectacled nerd, a joker who always takes things a step too far, a jock and his smart, pretty, but lacking in confidence girlfriend, go camping on a forested mountain. What follows is the familiar pattern of unheeded warnings by locals, hiking, frolics, topless swimming, dancing, more unheeded warnings by locals, death, mutilation, told-you-so-s from the unheeded locals, slight “twist” and heroine’s face off with a psychopath. Those familiar with the tropes of the Slasher will know that the smart, pretty, but lacking in confidence female character is the one to watch, as odds are she’ll make it to the end, or at least very nearly to the end. Given her chances of survival, it’s worth me giving you her name. It’s Constance, or Connie, if you happen to be foolish enough to go camping with her.
Now, besides the creakiness of George Kennedy’s clothes (or bones, or even possibly, horse), there are plenty of other sounds in this movie. The music by the incredibly prolific Brad Fiedel (The Terminator films, Fright Night and its sequel, and Night School, to name but a few) and, although it’s likely to have been one of his rush jobs, it’s actually not bad. The first thing that strikes you in the opening credit sequence is the eerie whistling over the picturesque dawn skyline. The whistling appears throughout the film and is often used to indicate the presence of murderous hillbillies. Sometimes the characters seem to be reacting to the whistling, so although it clearly forms part of a musical soundtrack, it has moments when it may or may not be diagetic. I’m also a sucker for analogue synth soundtracks of the ’70s and ’80s, and this film has its share of voltage-controlled squelchiness.
On the subject of music, have you ever thought to yourself, “You know, there just aren’t enough Slasher films with disco dancing sequences in dark forests”? Well, look no further than Just Before Dawn. In fact, there’s an absolutely brilliant disco dancing in the woods scene in this film. The synths are squelchy and funky, flirty girl flirts with everyone and there are plenty of “Ah, baby”s, just to help anyone in the audience along who somehow isn’t familiar with popular culture’s dancing-as-euphemism-for-sex technique. Basically, everyone’s having a wonderful time until the ghetto blaster gets shot.*
The “twist” that we’ve come to expect in a Slasher is not all that much of a twist in this movie. In fact, there’s a massive clue right at the beginning of the film (I’ll resist spoiling it, although I doubt it would ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the film). What is far more interesting about this movie, and that makes it stand out a little from the crowd, is the final showdown between the surviving female Connie and the hillbilly psycho.
In the early part of the film, Connie is portrayed as soft-hearted, careful and a little bit frumpy and square. On several occasions, she berates herself for her timidity and her inability to act when afraid. Her jock boyfriend, on the other hand, takes everything in his stride and seems to cope to a certain degree even when the bodies start to show up. However, once he starts getting chased by a killer hillbilly, he soon starts to lose it a little. Once the killer starts chasing Connie, she flips and shows no indication of going Ripley on anyone’s ass.
Then suddenly, we’re at the film’s climax.**
Convinced that any inbred, hillbilly psychos in the area are well and truly dead, thanks to the sharp shooting of George Kennedy, Connie and the jock are packing down their part of the campsite (the jock being convinced that his friends aren’t dead, so wants to leave their tent up for when they get back), when suddenly an inbred, hillbilly psycho with crazy eyebrows bursts into the clearing and stabs the jock in the belly. As the jock falls squealing to the ground, Crazy Eyebrows starts scrapping with Connie, who this time, instead of being paralysed with fear, manages to get one or two good cracks in, despite the psycho’s superior size and strength.
However, Connie ultimately seems to be outmatched, and, soon enough, huge psycho hillbilly has her in a bear hug, squeezing the life out of her. All seems hopeless, although the audience, knowing the tropes of the genre, is frantically looking round for George Kennedy to come bursting through the undergrowth to the rescue, or for Connie or the jock to stumble on an item that can be used as a surprise weapon.
What actually happens comes as a bit of a shock.
Instead of continuing her struggle to get free, Connie wraps her legs tightly round the psycho hillbilly’s waist and punches her hand down his throat.
Yup, she wraps her legs around him and punches her hand down his throat. What’s more, as the psycho hillbilly falls to the ground, she rides his writhing body and forces her hand down his throat even further, until finally the life is choked out of him.
That’s right. She fucks him to death.
At first, this seems a surprisingly strong act for a character who has doubted her own abilities throughout the movie and who, up until that point, had been afraid of her own shadow. Yet the signs were there. Connie has become increasingly confident sexually as the film progressed, borrowing flirty girl’s outrageously tight hot pants, joining flirty girl in her flirty, dark forest disco dancing and getting it on with the jock by the falls.
This is what makes the movie interesting because it is a well known trope of the genre that sexy women/women who have sex/sexually confident women get killed first in a Slasher. In fact, the big problem that many commentators have with these movies is that gruesome deaths can appear to be dealt out to women as if in punishment for having sex or being sexy***. Yes, in Just Before dawn, flirty girl gets killed after showing her boobs, sexy disco dancing and pretending to seduce the bespectacled nerd, but Connie fucks the bad guy to death!****
Basically, by fucking the psycho to death, while her jock boyfriend looks on whimpering, Connie makes the whole situation look like a woodland partner swapping party gone wrong.
In summary, this isn’t a film for everyone, but if you enjoy Slashers, it’s got enough going for it to be worth seeking out.
*I should really do a blog post on the dangers of ghetto blasters and Walkmans in ’80’s horror movies.
**Pun very much intended.
***One might suggest that nerds, jocks and assholes are equally punished for being nerds, jocks and assholes.
****I am in no way attempting to excuse misogyny in Slasher movies; I’ll leave that for some other fool.