Horror and Structure in A Prayer Before Dawn

‘Love is the one thing stronger than desire and the only proper reason to resist temptation.” – Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

Before I go into the structure of A Prayer Before Dawn I want to make a proposal. The proposal is that boxing movies are horror movies, and horror movies require much more than a literal monster. Horror is, after all, related to disgust and revulsion.

But first I have to prove that boxing movies are the male equivalent of erotica for women, or at least the classic idea of a ‘romance’. What? Where am I going with this? As Tiffany Reisz puts it in her book The Siren:

Romance is sex plus love. Erotica is sex plus fear.

Erotica of course deals with all the temptations of the flesh. Where a classic romance must end on a happy ending and deals with love, erotica delves into various fears, mostly those of temptation, ‘losing’ the body to the orgasmic excesses and being caught. Facing up to these fears drives the story. A boxing movie can be seen in the same light. Usually the protagonist has a lot to lose and is fearful of this loss and of grievous harm. Mots of all he is afraid of losing The Fight and thereby being caught out as a fraud. There are always key scenes of fleshy entanglement that end in a climactic win (or loss, no need for a happy ending). Technique and special moves are key. Sweat drips. The dull thud thud thud of fist hitting pad. Boxing and sex are the male and female sides of the same coin.

Still don’t believe me? They even share the same sub-genres:

So if boxing movies are erotic, or of the body, then they are also horrific. Horror lies squarely in the body and the damage that can be done to it. In a boxing movie we see swollen eyes and bleeding ears, we see jaws knocked out of place and people comatose. All of these are visceral in A Prayer Before Dawn and I have never seen a boxing movie as horrific as this. You think Videodrome is body horror? Almost every shot of A Prayer Before Dawn lingers over vile male bodies. The prisoners are covered head-to-foot in lurid, detailed tatts. There is a rape scene that feels like we are being forced to watch, the camera close and personal. The love interest is a ladyboy and we hang over the sex scene like trailing fingers over a breast. Billy, the protagonist, is lathered up and massaged multiple times and it would be sexual if it weren’t so vigorous. The boxing match scenes zoom in and out on the combatants, squeezing past and showing every blow in full detail. I have never seen a movie this fleshy and it leaves the viewer feeling dirty.

It isn’t only the camera that works so hard to provide this intimacy of horror. There is barely any dialogue. Our hero, Billy Moore, is imprisoned in Thailand and he is a stranger among aliens, everyone speaking gibberish he barely understands. He doesn’t comprehend the prison yard rules at first, except that he must posture in order to avoid being someone’s bitch. The sound weaves in and out, adding to the disorientation we feel while watching. This is a masterfully crafted movie.

In fact, we can learn a lot about plot from its structure. It cleaves very close to the classic Blake Snyder Save-The-Cat structure.

Opening Image – Billy preparing for a fight. We know he is a boxer.

Set-up – Involves a boxing fight he loses, and then him dealing drugs. His life before it goes to shit.

BONUS – Save the cat moment is when Billy attacks the referee for throwing off his fighting aid.

Theme Stated – There is barely any dialogue and I think the theme is stated when Billy swallows the drugs.

Catalyst – Being admitted to the Thai jail.

Debate – Does he ally himself with the prison kingpin and drug dealing guard?

Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) – Billy chooses to take drugs and get involved in the seedy side of the prison.

B Story – Falls in love with the ladyboy

Midpoint – False defeat where Billy tries to kill himself

Bad Guys Close In – Joins the boxing team.

All is Lost – Prison gang threaten him if he doesn’t win the big boxing match.

Dark Night of the Soul – Is vomiting blood and is told his body has taken too much trauma.

Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – Chooses to fight.

Finale – Using his training delivers a killer  blow to his opponent.

Final Image – At the start Billy lost a match, then he won at the end. But more so, the first shot is him being massaged by his young apprentice, and the last shot is of him and his father.

The movie essentially is a series of defeats until the mid-point where, with nothing to lose, Billy tries to kill himself. After trying to do this he has a series of wins once he joins the boxing team and gets the ‘girl’ until the final victory against the odds. It is the perfect redemption narrative. The whole movie there are people trying to drag him up, even if he won’t let them. The theme of opening yourself up and not lying is depicted by trying to hide the drugs when the police raid his house (literally internalising them) and we see him overcome this when, given the opportunity to evade police at the end, he instead goes back to prison. If you need an example of a well constructed plot this is a great film to study, especially because it manages to show so much without dialogue.