I’d always heard that Just Before Dawn was a real gem of a movie. A true classic of the genre ripe for rediscovery. I went in with high expectations, and the only part of the above statement I would disagree with is I still think that underrates it.
Call Just Before Dawn the thinking man’s slasher movie. Or rather don’t because it kind of makes you sound like an asshole. Hell I’m sorry I wrote that. My bad.
But affected demeaning of an entire sub genre aside, Just Before Dawn there’s no hiding the fact that Just Before Dawn is “smarter then the average slasher.” A tense moody, well made and shot piece of work that makes real creative and creepy use out of its rural surroundings rather then just having it act as the default horror setting the way so many lazier horror films do.
The film takes a tried and true genre plot. City folk go into the mountain, meet irate hillbillies, hijinks ensue. But the film unlikely finds new things to do with it. In one of the film’s cleverest twists the opening victims of the movie are a pair of Sons Of The South who look and act like the usual perpetrators in a “Good Ole Boys Run Amuck” Slasher. And further more the characters, though somewhat arrogant, are likable and developed beyond (granted perhaps not far beyond) fodder.
Like I said, the woods are suitably creepy and much is made out of their cathedral space. The horror sequences are also a notch above, with much more thought put into their staging beyond how best to frame the next gore shot. The film is actually quite low on violence, and it’s most affective (and justly famous) shot, were we watch as one of the stalkers, far in the background, slips unnoticed into the swimming hole containing our cast, holds none.
The film does have a few flaws, George Kennedy’s always nice to see, but he’s literally playing a walking deus ex machina. The film is well directed by Jeff Lieberman. Responsible for the infamous cult films Squirm and Blue Sunshine. And also the script for The Never Ending Story III. But lets not hold that too harshly against him.
But if there’s one thing that really pushed me over the edge into loving Just Before Dawn It’s that the Gender Politics at the core managed to go beyond being merely not embarrassing as they usually are with a slasher movie, and graduated to being actually pretty righteous.
Gender is a tricky thing to handle in genre fiction. I recently got into a bit of an argument with a reader over Wrong Turn. Particularly about whether Dushku’s role in Wrong Turn qualified as a strong female one. It’s a role that claimed to be empowering, and yet featured her tied to the bed being sexually molested by mountain men waiting for someone else to save her for a large portion of her screen time. Just Before Dawn serves as a potent counterpoint to say the least. You want a strong female protaginist? How about one who stays calm and cool while her male counter part turns to jello (he ends the film sobbing and literally hugging her knees) and when the big bad slåsher comes back for one last scare SHE SHOVES HER FIST DOWN THE MOTHER FUCKERS THROAT UNTIL HE CHOKES ON IT!!! Now that’s badass.
So what you’ve got here is a well shot, well made, well acted film, which manages to deliver the genre goods in spades. Like I said “The Thinking Man’s Slasher Film” might sound pompous. Perhaps the “Guilt Free Slasher Film” would be a bit better.