[Editorial] Revisiting ‘Just Before Dawn,’ an Underrated Slasher with an Unconventional Final Girl
There’s been a lot of talk over the last few weeks about the idea of the “Final Girl” and what it means to the horror genre. Some have been arguing it’s a regressive trope, existing just to alleviate the guilt of men who enjoy watching all of the other women in a slasher movie victimized and murdered. Others have argued that the “Final Girl,” as it was originally defined, is out of date and represents very little of the genre as we know it today. I side with the latter, but I’m not here to defend a side. The issue has been tackled on this site already, and tackled very well. No, I’m here because the debate made me think about one of the best and most underrated slasher movies of all time: 1981’s Just Before Dawn, a movie that inverts and redefines practically everything the “Final Girl” was once determined to be.
Directed by genre mainstay Jeff Lieberman (Blue Sunshine, Squirm, Satan’s Little Helper), Dawn sees a group of young people – among them Gregg Henry, Chris Lemmon, and Deborah Benson – heading into the Oregon mountains to check out some property one of them has inherited. While camping in the woods, they are attacked by two hillbilly brothers trying to kill them all. At this, they mostly succeed.
Pretty standard slasher movie stuff, right? And, yet, Just Before Dawn is anything but. It’s merits as a horror movie are substantial, whether it’s the first-rate cast (I didn’t even mention George Kennedy and Sleepaway Camp’s Mike Kellin in supporting roles), composer Brad Fidel’s spooky and spare score, or the expertly utilized and gorgeously photographed outdoor locations. At a time when slashers were just starting to be churned out as crude product on the regular, Just Before Dawn demonstrates real artistry in the way it’s put together. In a subgenre not often known for its formal craftsmanship, Just Before Dawn is, first and foremost, a really well-made movie.
But what has me thinking about it of late is the way it approaches the concept of the “Final Girl,” as represented by Deborah Benson’s character Constance. She begins the movie timid and square, camping in full-length khakis and talking about her ineptitude when it comes to all things outdoorsy (I say this without judgment, as I can totally relate). She is surprised at the ability of her friends to act quickly and decisively, criticizing herself for not being able to be more reactive. Connie is established precisely the way a Final Girl traditionally would be, and while Just Before Dawn telegraphs her role early on, the way she eventually accepts the Final Girl mantle is decidedly non-traditional.
(Caution: Spoilers for Just Before Dawn from here on out)
Rather than suggesting that Connie survives by virtue of being, well, virtuous, or that she only become more masculine throughout the film and therefore is able to hold her own against the killers, Just Before Dawn actually goes in the exact opposite direction. Constance actually becomes more sexualized and “feminine” as the film progresses (by societal standards, at least). It begins with a dance around a campfire, which many a slasher of the period might have the Final Girl sit out as a way of setting her apart from the group. Instead, Constance joins in, dancing in a way that grows more and more sensual as it continues – a fact not lost on her boyfriend Warren (Gregg Henry), who definitely takes notice. She changes out of her khakis and into a pair of shorts so tight and so tiny they hardly cover her butt, unbuttoning her Oxford shirt and tying it at the midriff. Right before the final confrontation, she even applies full makeup, meaning by the time she faces off against the second of the two twin killers (John Hunsaker), she’s unrecognizable as the same woman we met at the start of the film.
The prevailing wisdom is that Final Girls are partly Final Girls because they are desexualized, presented in sharp relief to one or more promiscuous women who do not survive to the end of the film. Whether this notion is born out of studying actual data – the number of slasher movies in which this trope occurs – or whether it has just become a thing everyone says, I’m not totally sure. The idea has gained wide enough acceptance that it even became a major plot point in Scream over 20 years ago, which has just embedded the idea in our collective consciousness even more to the point that we accept it as fact even when it isn’t.
Just Before Dawn’s Connie exists in direct opposition to this idea: she is at once increasingly “feminine” in her appearance while taking on more “masculine” roles, at least by the standards of the film. Out of nowhere, she teaches herself how to pitch a tent, which “the boys” were supposed to do. She becomes not just a survivor in her fight against the backwoods brothers but the aggressor, all while her boyfriend cowers nearby, paralyzed and powerless to help. By the time Connie kills the second brother by ramming her fist down his throat (it’s as awesome as it sounds) – literally penetrating him the way a man might – she has completed her transformation into the most badass slasher movie hero, both masculine and feminine, sacrificing neither side of her newfound Self on her way to victory. She destroys the traditional notions of the Final Girl by redefining what it means to be the Final Girl.
The irony here, of course, is that Connie isn’t even a “Final Girl” because she’s not the only survivor of the movie. Her boyfriend is still alive, lying on the ground weeping, forever scarred, no different from Laurie Strode or Friday III’s Chris or even Texas Chain Saw’s Sally, only with less maniacal laughter. It’s Warren who’s left in a position more consistent with Final Girls. Connie has her shit together, standing triumphant, a bloodied, beautiful warrior.
I don’t necessarily want to make the case that Just Before Dawn is a feminist slasher film, because that’s for someone smarter and more articulate and perhaps more female than me to say. It’s interesting, however, that the genre has a reputation for killing off only scantily clad women (itself a gross misrepresentation), while Just Before Dawn kills off all men and only one woman. Even more, hers is the only death to occur offscreen; we are not made to revel in her death, as some scholars would argue the genre typically necessitates. Hell, the first kill of the movie features a man literally being stabbed in the dick. This is a movie that seems to want to confront some of the sexual politics of the genre before they even wound up codified by countless other slashers. It may not be exactly feminist, but it certainly is progressive.
The next time this Final Girl debate rears its head again – when someone starts criticizing the genre for the simplistic way it presents women or suggests that all slashers are the same – point them towards Just Before Dawn. It’s a great slasher movie that dares to be different.