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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Just Before Dawn Jeff Lieberman 1981

"A French Twist that Has to Be Seen to Be Believed!"

I'll freely admit that this film was one case where I HUNTED for an excuse to be able to include it here. And while I did come up with something, it unfortunately is in the form of something that is absent from, rather than included in, the film.

"Just Before Dawn" is a teens-in-the-woods slasher with something a little different going for it. For one, the teens are there to mountain climb and survey the land, not screw and smoke pot (*sigh*). For another, there is a creepy mountain family that lives on the property. And for another, George Kennedy lives down the road, where he talks to plants and kisses his horse all day. After an excruciatingly long period of "chase and follow" (which includes some genuinely frightening -- and admirably restrained -- scenes), the redneck killer makes his presence known and the kids start dropping like ripe fruit.

So what's so special about this film? A few things. First, the location and atmosphere are fantastic. This is no Camp Crystal Lake, kids -- these folks are in the middle of nowhere (although either there are a lot of waterfalls on this mountain or they happened to come across the same one several times in their trek), and the "Final Terror"-like surroundings are, as they were in "Terror", the real star (sorry, Mr. Pantoliano). Second, there is a feeling of casualness to the scenes that has been all but lost in our polished, tech-heavy thrillers of today. The kids talk about nothing. Sometimes they don't talk at all. We enter scenes at the end of jokes, sometimes barely hearing the conversation, as if we were eavesdropping. This, combined with the sparseness of the score, gives a normalcy to the proceedings that makes the fright scenes all the more creepy. I honestly have not seen many films where this has been done to better effect (think Burstyn and Blair's dialogue scenes from "The Exorcist"). Plus, the fright elements are tucked within shots with the characters, not announced with cuts or fanfare (the man swinging onto the back of the camper is a shiver-inducing example), and the results are unsettling. Even the "twist" ending doesn't seem like a ripoff because the idea was fairly introduced early-on, in a bit of banal mood-setting dialogue. Very effective.

But the element of "Dawn" that really sets it apart from the rest is the character arc of the "last female" (Constance, played by Deborah Benson-Wald, looking very much like Caroline Rhea on a safari). At the onset, she is like a lesbian Girl Scout denleader, complete with a sensible French Twist and trousers (as opposed to the tarty redhead, who is a dead ringer for Sideshow Bob and brings makeup with her... into the mountains). But as the story progresses -- or, one might argue, to progress the story -- she becomes more feminine, tying her shirt up, letting her hair down, wearing makeup and Daisy Dukes. Oddly, it seems that every time we see her do something feminine, some tradedy befalls the group. For example, when she first lets her hair down and starts dancing, the backwoods family blows up their boombox. We see her painting her nails, and immediately Chris Lemmon is killed. The makeup itself is a major plot point (and the source of one of the strangest lines: "A racoon stole my makeup! Will you go out into the woods and find it for me?"); no one sees the killer stowaway on their camper because Red is hogging the mirror. By the end of the film Connie is tarted up like a French whore, and even goes so far as to apply a fresh coat after being knocked out of a tree and then nearly smothered by the evil fattie. It is in this easy, breezy, beautiful Glamourshots getup that she confronts the final baddie, literally stuffing her fist down this throat as her patently useless boyfriend watches, blabbering like a baby.

What the fuck is going on here? We see a butchy girl (usually a sign of strength in these films, as opposed to the hair-flipping hoardes of bimbo victims) who finds her inner tart, and in this discovery finds strenth (in an early scene, pre-Twist-release, she is unable to even pick up a knife in self-defense; hours later, with the help of Max Factor, she is fisting a linebacker). Quite a far cry from the usual character arc of the "last girl", who is almost always masculinized as she finds her strength, a point which my friend Bryan notes is a backhanded misogynist statement: in order for a woman to be strong, she much become a man. Here we've got just the opposite, and it is absolutely mind-boggling to watch. I can't believe I've never seen it happen before or since, and I give Lieberman and company a round of applause for giving it a go.

So where's the queer angle? Well, it's something that was unfortunately lost in development, but is still significant to the film, which already resonates with a queer subversion of gender roles and stereotypes. According to screenwriter Mark Arywitz, the character of Daniel (the nerdy photographer) was originally supposed to be gay, and even had a coming-out scene (right before he was killed, of course). Earlier in the film he was to be caught looking at muscle magazines. In watching the film, this revelation wouldn't have been entirely surprising: the character is artistic, a bit awkward, and single -- different from his athletic, relaxed, coupled friends. Arywitz doesn't know why the gay element was removed (he claims that the film didn't end up being the one he wrote at all), but it's interesting to know that it was there in the first place, and only adds to the complexity of the relationships.

"Dawn" has obvious ties to "Friday the 13th", "The Hills Have Eyes", "The Final Terror", "Deliverance", and was obvious inspiration for recent Dont-Go-In-The-Woods hit "Wrong Turn". And with its excellent use of eerie calm and eyeliner, it's definitely worth hunting down.

Rating (out of 5):