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If I Die Before I Wake
(1998)
 

Director: Brian Katkin                           
Cast:
Stephanie Jones, Muse Watson, Michael McCleery


The opening two minutes of If I Die Before I Wake are not very promising, except in making us think it's going to be one cheap and shoddily produced poor ride ahead. The opening credits shaking every-so-slightly like the credits found in student films, the immediately obvious grainy look of the film itself, and the use of public-domain classical music (more specifically, public domain classical music that sounds very inappropriate for the sequence), playing in the background as we see the members of a typical Midwestern family tucked away safely in their home, will make many viewers start preparing for an impoverished ride ahead. And let's face it, you don't often associate anything impoverished in a positive viewpoint. Then all of a sudden, when Muse Watson enters the scene and makes his presence known, everything changes. The movie immediately grabs you by the throat and never lets go. Its grip is tightest in the first half, and though it loosens slightly in the second half as its imagination and believability somewhat evaporates, it still has a strong enough hold on you to keep watching until the very end.

Movie buffs will see that the basic idea of this movie isn't original; most of its influence obviously came from The Desperate Hours, but I also saw that it may also have been influenced by Clownhouse, quite possibly the obscure B movie Curfew, and by a few scenes from Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer.  One way that the movie differentiates itself from the basic core formula that it derives from all of these movies is that it starts its central conflict almost immediately - there is no real time devoted beforehand to telling us where we are, who these characters are and what their personalities are like. Almost immediately after we learn that we are at a house containing a married couple and their three children, the crisis begins, which is in the form of three psychotic brothers - T.J. (McCleery), Billy (Anthony Nicosia), and Daryl (Watson), the leader of the trio. They smash down the front door and nab the members of the family, tying them up and almost immediately afterwards subjecting them to various types of torture. What they don't know is that they didn't find every member of the family - teenaged Lori Beth (Jones) managed An intruder prepares to enter Anne Robinson's house to hide herself and her young sister Mary just before the brothers entered their room. But it doesn't make much difference, because the two sisters soon find themselves trapped in hiding - they are unable to get out of the house for various (and plausible) reasons, and the situation has also made communicating to the outside world just as improbable.

After watching the movie, I took a look on the Internet to see if others shared my opinion of it, and I came across one reviewer who called what the movie depicts as both "brutal" and "exploitation...in the truest sense of the word." This I must strongly disagree with. Now, I am not saying that brutality is not to be found here; during the course of the movie, there are a number of  extremely savage acts of violence committed, of a kind that Humphrey Bogart and his thugs fifty years earlier would never have done. But to label these brutal acts as being exploitative is wrong, for upon closer examination one can see that great care was placed in setting up and directing these sequences. As a result, a feeling of great violence and brutality is generated that fools us into thinking we've seen a lot more violence than is actually depicted.

For two such examples of the nastier incidents of the movie, take a closer look at the sequence when Billy takes out his knife, as well as the incident that takes place in the parents' bathroom. We hear what is happening during these acts of violence, and we are told afterwards what actually happened, but we never actually see these violent acts unfolding before our eyes - the camera is either in another room or pointed in the opposite direction. What our minds then do is to combine the tortured cries of the screaming victims with the description afterwards of what was done to them - and it gives us a horrible vision in our heads that would be tough to duplicate in front of the camera. To simply show these violent acts in front of us would risk coming across as exploitation, and might turn off even the most jaded horror fans.

That's not to say that there is no violence depicted before the camera. There is, but again, great care has been made to both prepare for it, and in actually depicting it. Before the violence comes, there's actually a considerable amount of time with no onscreen violence; as we see Lori hiding, sneaking from room to room, and trying to find escape or help, we constantly hear the sounds of screaming, crying, and physical blows coming out of her parents' bedroom. It really can't be considered exploitive if you can't see exactly what's going on in there. And even when we eventually get to see what's actually going on in that room, the violence is not portrayed in a way where we'll get our jollies. The first glimpse we're given of it is shown from the exact viewpoint of Lori seeing it with her own eyes, hidden in the darkness of the hallway several feet away. Seeing the violence this way quickly builds a sense of uneasiness watching the spectacle, because seeing it from Lori's eyes makes us feel that we are actually there seeing this violence, and powerless to intervene. The camera does eventually move into the bedroom, but the depiction of violence close-up has also been staged to limit the feeling of exploitation as much as possible. The use of hand-held cameras makes the violence appear that it was being shot as it was actually occurring, and doesn't have a staged feeling. And surprisingly, there's not as much time shown in showing the violence right to our faces as you may think. To call this movie brutal is one thing, but to call it exploitive is simply not true. To have been exploitive would have have taken far less effort than all of this.

On the other hand, it can't be denied that the movie takes the easy way out in a few other places, though it is mostly confined to the development of the characters. None of this is the fault of the actors; the level of acting in this movie is never less than first rate. Jones has the most difficult part, having a heavily physical role that also requires her to come across as an intelligent (yet not super-genius) teenager. Her character is written quite believably, and she is up to the challenge to act it out so that Lori is a character that's more real life than protagonists in many other films. And as the psychotic, knife-wielding Billy,

Anthony Nicosia greatly intensifies what is more or less a standard psycho role to make a lunatic that may even be scarier than the leader Daryl.

But as for the characters of Daryl and T.J. it doesn't take a close observation to see that they have not been written with as much care as even Nicosia's "ordinary" role. As I said, it's no fault of the actors, and they do the very best anyone could do. But for a leader, Daryl seems quite vague in his motivations. The biggest question is why he planned the break-in in the first place. Sure, there's money and valuables in the house. And sure, they have fun torturing the occupants of the house. But as the film progresses, you start to get the impression that he just thought of those things as "fringe benefits" for breaking in the house to something else - but what? Worse of all, there are several points early on when Daryl seems to have no reason to staying in the house any longer - but he does all the same. T.J.'s character, on the other hand, suffers from being a big cliché we have seen many times before. You see, he's the younger brother, so - yes, you guessed right - he starts having second thoughts as the movie progresses, and it turns out he has a (sigh) "nice" streak in him. So why the heck did he join his brothers in the first place for robbery and torture? There is one thing I did like about T.J. and Daryl, however - they are not as dumb as similar thugs are in other movies. From just a few vague clues not long after breaking in, they realize that someone else is in the house. In fact, Daryl uses some cunning logic to figure out why Lori later on hasn't escaped from the house.

For what was undeniably a very low budget, director Brian Katkin does a commendable job, building and maintaining for most of the movie a strong sense of dread and terror that makes us forget about the lighting and cinematography. He makes whatever is currently going on in front of us so riveting that he is able to sneak in some surprises, bringing back things previously shown so that their re-entry is a big surprise; in other hands, we may have remembered those things, and then the movie would have been very predictable. Eventually the direction does break down and moves into a conventional groove, though. Just before the climax, things start to go so over the top that the movie's credibility quickly gets flushed down the toilet, and the climax itself has a remarkable similarity to that found in a typical exploitation slasher flick (even using a device that was used in more than one of the Friday The 13th movies.) Had the climax been more believable, I may have been willing to label this movie a first-rate horror movie despite those previously mentioned flaws. But it's still a commendable effort, a horror movie that will please both slasher-minded teenagers and adults craving realism - in short, an exercise in gruelling horror for the entire family.

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See also: Clownhouse, Confessions Of A Serial Killer, Don't Go In The House

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