The following review was supposed to appear on the site on Tuesday as part of our slasher-themed week at the column. While we were writing about crazed killers claiming victims, however, many of us along the East Coast became the victims of Hurricane Sandy. As a resident of New Jersey, I am horrified and devastated by the tyrannical destruction inflicted on my home state and New York City. Please, at your urgency, text REDCROSS to 90999 and donate $10.
And just remember, what we’ve written about? It’s only a movie.
The Film: Just Before Dawn (1981)
The Principals: George Kennedy, Gregg Henry, Chris Lemmon, Mike Kellin, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell. Directed by Jeff Lieberman.
The Premise: Five teens go camping in their RV. Their destination spot, however, is unmarked territory manned by a nasty pair of killer redneck twins. Will they survive? Will stubborn doctor George Kennedy intervene to save them from impending backwoods doom?
Is It Good? The picaresque territory of Deliverance, the thrills and kills of Halloween—an easy formula to meld together, and one that director Jeff Lieberman pulls off with great success. The film opens with images of its woodland terrain, illuminated by an orange sunrise and early work from a pre-Terminator Brad Fiedel. His work takes a creepier, minimalist direction compared to the bombast on display in his James Cameron collaborations. Coupled with the sounds of the warning whistle one of its heroes carries around, we get a perfect touch to setting up the overall aura of the film.
As a slasher, Just Before Dawn creates its own sense of dread by liberally fusing elements from other successful entries for its own goods. Like Halloween, there is a great deal of insidious growth on behalf of the pacing. It’s a slow burn; the kids’ debauchery is accentuated by images and appearances by its inbred antagonists foreshadowing the eventual fire-sale on bloodshed. Nevertheless, Lieberman and company manage to keep the blood flowing in nasty, unprecedented fashion. One of the hopeless teens has a moment of Burt Reynolds in Deliverance freefall heroism horrifically cut short in a blunt but depressing fashion. Most shocking of all, the opening victim takes a jagged machete to the groin and straight through his ass. Michael scalded a poor girl to death in a hot tub, Jason crushed heads, Freddy maneuvered that horrible marionette job on one of the Dream Warriors—but getting a serrated machete through the junk and out the butthole might be a hell of a lot worse in terms of insult.
Per tradition, the acting from its leads does not strike as particularly memorable, though Gregg Henry makes a welcome early appearance as the de facto male lead. However, Just Before Dawn, like many slashers, follows the unofficial rule of having a prestigious veteran thespian on hand for support. Here, George Kennedy—following in the tradition of Donald Pleasance, Betsy Palmer, Ben Johnson, Farley Granger, Glenn Ford, Jack Palance, Martin Landau and many more—takes the role of the responsible adult who only volunteers to help when things get really bad. Whether he’s a veterinarian, park ranger, retiree or rancher is never entirely explained, but Kennedy’s part is basically a cross between Dr. Loomis and Crazy Ralph. He’s well aware the kids are asking for it by venturing into the Forbidden Land of Incestuous Murderers, but like the beloved white horse he has, he turns out to be the one with an inkling of humanity.
It’s a quality that, in the end, becomes lost on the survivors. The final girl reduces to barbaric extremes in the climax that heighten the nihilistic line between civilized and uncivilized in the film. Just Before Dawn owes a debt to Carpenter just as much as it does to Peckinpah and Boorman, and in its effort, it pays off greatly.
Is It Worth a Look? This is one of many early 80’s cult favorites I had heard about for years that I had finally managed to see for the first time recently. Some stuff (like The Funhouse) let down considerably; this, on the other hand, excels as one of the meaner and more unique teenage-slayers of the era. Well worth your time.
Random Anecdotes: While the folks at Shriek Show and Media Blasters (the latter of whom is the creator of an unsightly opening logo that would have been outdated in 1988) released a substantial special edition of this a few years back, the best-available print they were able to get their hands on was a cut version that omitted a few seconds of gore and other odds and ends—something that the early 80’s Paragon Home Video release had present. Luckily, this one will be getting a new and improved release from the folks at Code Red soon with the out-of-print master intact!
Cinematic Soulmates: Straw Dogs, Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Burning