Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Just Before Dawn (1981)

‘Just Before Dawn’ did not make so much as a whimper during its theatrical release but since then has quite rightfully built a sturdy cult following on home video. Over the last 32 years at the time of writing, the film has been lauded among horror aficionados for being one of the very best backwoods set entries into the slasher sub-genre influenced by John Boorman’s masterful 1972 survival thriller ‘Deliverance’.

Boorman’s movie is a harrowing depiction of a group of big city middle class male friends taking a canoe trip down the river of the unknown to outsiders dangerous territory of the remote northern Georgia wilderness in Southern America encountering and fighting for their lives against the hostile and some inbred hillbilly locals. Tobe Hooper’s also significant landmark in shocking cinema The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) would follow suit with Wes Craven following it up in 1977 with the stark brutality of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. Hooper and Craven’s films are both important forerunners to the shaping of the slasher as a whole sub-genre of horror. However, ‘Deliverance’ is the primary innovator of the backwoods settings that the city folk protagonists venture into and are out of their depths in somewhere they do not belong hunted down by the redneck antagonists who consider them invaders of their home. Testament to this is that Jeff Lieberman the director of ‘Just Before Dawn’ had not seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ prior to the making of his movie citing ‘Deliverance’ as his main influence and John Carpenter’s master class template slasher ‘Halloween’ (1978) as another for key elements.

Five young adults head into the Oregon Mountains in a camper van for the weekend to take a look at some land that one of them Warren (Gregg Henry) has become the deeds owner of. Despite the warnings from the forest ranger Roy McLean (the great George Kennedy) that it is dangerous territory for inexperienced strangers to enter, Warren tells him that he has ten years survival experience but Roy replies that nature is not the only threat. They carry on undeterred just shrugging it off.

Soon after they cross paths with a drunken old man played by the underrated character actor the brilliant and late Mike Kellin best known to genre fans as Mel in the 1983 cult slasher ‘Sleepaway Camp’ which would be his last role before dying that same year. His character’s name here is Ty who we see in the opening scene and he is panic stricken due to being pursued by the murderer of his nephew that took place in an old abandoned church house nearby that they discovered while out hunting depicted in that first sequence. Again, the group of friends ignore his warnings and continue to make their journey up to the mountains leaving him behind. Unbeknownst to them, they pick up another passenger Ty’s pursuer on the back of their vehicle who climbs up to the top of the roof. Up in the mountains they also encounter a hick family that warn them “you’re raise the devil” if they do not leave. This family is connected to the film’s twist revelation.

Aside from that opening kill, a very nasty explicit one that you can really feel with its impact there is only one other murder set-piece consisting of gruesome violence that also takes place on the location of the abandoned old church house outside in its graveyard that has a very clever well-staged tense build up to it. This is followed up by an off-camera murder that despite this is no less frightening for it that reveals that twist revelation that is implied in an earlier death sequence that is in full view but has no graphic bloodletting. You obviously notice that I am tiptoeing around the specifics of these scenes. I am going into as much detail as I can without causing spoilers to anybody who has yet to see this overlooked slasher gem. The sheer brutality of the first kill promises the viewer much for what is in store but the movie hardly delivers at all in this respect and is disappointing for that, as I would have liked to have seen more of this nastiness over the running time.

Although, the main emphasis here is on suspense and encasing it in an eerie atmosphere thanks in no small part to composer Brad Fiedel’s electronic score that is spine chillingly magnificent and Dean and Joel King’s lush cinematography. The first hour is a slow burn dedicated to the build-up, offering many immensely creepy moments before the pace really picks up in the third act with the first murder of the group of friends. The tension starts to reach unbearable levels here that only intensify.

The acting and characterization is some the strongest I have seen in a slasher horror. These are not one-dimensional annoyingly obnoxious teenagers that so often populate the sub-genre. Well fleshed out, these are mature acting likable characters. The stand outs of the cast are Henry’s Warren who starts out as the tough guy survivalist only to deteriorate with weakness as he sees his friends die and go missing around him and Deborah Benson as his girlfriend Constance who turns out to be the strong one in the climax in a highly original final girl and killer showdown. The actors’ reaction to the terrifying situation they are in is very convincing as the characters react as normal people would under the same circumstances making the movie instantly relatable with its believability enabling us to feel for these luckless protagonists’ terrible plight in an emotional pull you in.

Despite its distinct lack of bloody visceral intensity, aside from that truly standout horrific opening moment and one other scene of gruesomeness, ‘Just Before Dawn’ strives to be a chilling exercise in suspense and atmosphere. Not only is it one of the best entries of the sub-genre’s backwoods ilk but it is just one of the very better written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored and most compelling slasher films of the early 80s.

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2013 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Another excellent review Dave, really enjoyed it (never saw the Hill Have Eyes image before!) and it made me feel like going back and seeing this one again - I must say I was very disappointed with the film. For years I wanted to see it - I always loved the atmospheric pre-cert VHS artwork and I love the backwoods genre, but this one left me cold. I actually had plans to do a post of my own on it, as part of a Lieberman trilogy - preceded by Squirm and Blue Sunshine, even securing the uncut version of the film sourced from an old American tape, but ultimately I abandoned this final post with little positive to say about the film. If someone asked me about the film, I'd call out Rituals (1977) instead - one of the most impressive films of the original backwoods cycle. I absolutely agree with you about Brad Fiedel’s electronic score, and I might add that I experienced an echo of Predator in the scene where the maniac emerges from the waterfall. I wonder had John McTiernan seen the film ?

    1. Thank you very much, Wes. I've never seen 'Rituals'. I just watched the trailer and it looks great, so I will now seek it out. Thanks for the rec. Yeah Fiedel's score in 'Just Before Dawn' is amazing. A good observation about the waterfall scene as it is indeed similar to the scene in 'predator'.