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Just Before Dawn (1981)
25th Aug 05
Five young adults are terrorised in Hicksville USA. George Kennedy is in it.
(Warning! Review contains spoilers)
And so it came to pass that Jeff Lieberman’s little horror masterpiece from 1981 was finally released on DVD. Hallelujah. And about time, too.
Although Just Before Dawn falls into the ‘slasher’ horror genre, it feels wrong to label in such broad terms. Sure, it has slasher elements (most notably that a bunch of kids/young adults venturing into the forest when they have been warned by locals to stay away), but the fresh approach and skill on display here kicks this fine piece straight into another league. This is almost a different sport entirely.
It tells the story of five young adults who take a Winnebago deep into a heavily forested, mountainous terrain because one of them has recently become the official owner of some of the land in the area. Unfortunately for them however, a hulking killer lurks in them thar woods. We know this, but they don’t. Ignoring sound advice from a Forest Ranger in the form of screen legend George Kennedy, as well as a petrified local drunk, they venture forth with not a care in the world, their only collective intention
being to have a grand ole time.
When they begin to encounter the hulking beast of a killer, the dynamics of the small group begin to alter as they realise they have to fight, or die.
Jeff Leiberman had already proved himself with the wacky Blue Sunshine and the fun wormfest that is Squirm. Equipped with a higher budget and an adept, professional crew he submitted a film that was probably not what audiences were looking for back in 1981. Instead of portraying dumb ass kids, he opted for a character-driven group of young adults whose characteristics and personalities go way beyond what slasher audiences are accustomed to. Each of these five people has a reason to be in the story; they are not simply dispensable machete fodder.
Audiences and critics alike have long commented on the influence of such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes on Just Before Dawn, although Leiberman states that he had never seen either of those films at that time. The key influence on this piece is the classic Deep South rafting postcard, Deliverance. While the two
aforementioned films definitely have similarities to Leiberman’s movie, it was the skilfully conceived John Boorman offering that prompted his foray into the horror that lies behind the trees, and also to use similar character dynamics to those so excellently portrayed in Boorman’s film.
This horror doesn’t have to be clear. It doesn’t even have to be understood. It’s just there, and there ain’t a thing you can do about it. This horror is referred to as “demon” and “devil” by locals and although its background is pretty much left to the viewers imagination, there doesn’t seem to be a gaping hole where some kind of explanation should be. There’s no need for questions or answers. The “devil” is easy to accept without a flurry of information about why its there.
Here comes the spoiler: Leiberman’s main twist in the story is that there is not one, but TWO demons. Twin brothers. Poor mama must’ve had a hard time squeezing these two out. More astute viewers could perhaps see this coming because the clever script provides us with clues and hints that this hulk may not be acting alone throughout the course of the story, but it is not until about 60 minutes in that Leiberman tells us the score. It’s not a good score. The impact of this moment is quite awesome and from this point forwards we know we are in the hands of a director who has been manipulating us all along - feeding us scraps from the table - just enough for it all to make sense (as if that’s meant to make us feel any easier about what comes next).
The casting doesn’t leave much to be desired. George Kennedy is always a welcome sight (especially as Joe Petroni in the classic 70’s Airport films) and does a decent turn as the Ranger who loves to talk to his plants, even if it’s quite obvious he’s the ‘token’ name actor. Which brings me to Chris Lemmon - son to the somewhat more famous Jack. Lemmon is steadfast and doesn’t seem scared about taking physical risks when it comes to stunt work.
The most colourful characters of all however are the hick family Logan. John Hunsaker cuts a truly terrifying figure as the killer twins, his
mountain-like physicality and presence dominating scenes not only because of this worrying physical mass but also due to the somewhat unclear fear he so naturally evokes. Even more unsettling is the sound he makes - quiet, pig like snorts and squeals as if he had been to the Leatherface School of Speech Alternatives. Hap Oslund who plays their father also fits into the surroundings perfectly. In fact, he couldn’t look more at home as he tells the younglings to get away from the forest in his own charming hillbilly way - “Skiddoot!” In fact, it probably is his home. Is it possible to look so authentic? He's more like the real thing...
The soundtrack score, courtesy of Terminator man Brad Fidel, relies on the less is more approach in more than one aspect. His subtly scored pieces compliment the overall atmosphere perfectly but Leiberman doesn’t let the audience count on being told when to feel an emotion - he leaves it to the sound of the natural environment, often letting the sound of dead air do the talking.
If Just Before Dawn feels like it gives into cliché, it can hardly be blamed. It was made before the slasher conventions had time to evolve into clichés. Any false scares that occur in this film have a justified reason for being there so don’t knock them. They also serve to transform the genuine scare moments into something truly creepy. Some aspects simply could not be further removed from cliché.
Media Blasters' DVD should be a welcome family member in any serious horror fan’s DVD collection. Leiberman’s commentary is his usual insightful, witty and downright likeable self even if he takes a few too many long breaks. The interview section/documentary is similarly enlightening with a surprising appearance from the squealer twin(s) himself, John Hunsaker.
Unfortunately however, the print of the film is apparently cut by a few seconds, the first murder being the main scene in question. Don’t let this
put you off - it’s still nasty and at the end of the day, a few seconds of blood isn’t what Just Before Dawn is about. If meaningless gore is what you’re after then steer clear of this one. If that all-too uncommon thing known as an intelligent, articulate, creepy backwoods horror film sounds good, then you won’t be disappointed. Go on - buy it. Did I mention that George Kennedy is in it?