Just Before Dawn (1981)

The nightmare has begun...

Year of Release: 1981
Genre: Horror
Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes (1:30)
Director: Jeff Lieberman


Gregg Henry ... Warren
Deborah Benson ... Constance
Chris Lemmon ... Jonathan
Jamie Rose ... Megan
Ralph Seymour ... Daniel
George Kennedy ... Roy McLean
Mike Kellin ... Ty
Katie Powell ... Merry Cat Logan
Hap Oslund ... Pa Logan
Barbara Spencer ... Ma Logan
John Hunsaker ... Mountain Twins


Five youths set out for a weekend camping excursion to drink, frolic and look into a piece of isolated land one of them has inherited. Despite ominous warnings from various locals about "demons" in the wilderness, they trek farther into the foliage.


Just Before Dawn, remindin' all the ladies out there that when you go vacationin' in the Ozarks, the hills only have eyes for you. Least until they kill ya an haul your butt home strapped to a four wheeler with a confederate flag flyin' on the antenna so they can try on your lacy unmentionables. Once that happens, they've only got eyes for your strong willed, less feminine friend who knew better'n to bounce around topless an grind on anybody with a testosterone level higher'n Richard Simmons. An speakin' of Sweatin' to the Oldies, I ain't done diddly squat for the last week on account of it bein' approximately 200 degrees outside. I'm not sure exactly how hot it got, cause the mercury in the thermometer exploded when it cracked 109 an started squirmin' all over the patio concrete like it was gonna turn into the T-1000. Plus my box fan broke down on me an I ain't got the scratch to replace it for another two weeks, so I just been sittin' around in my unnerpants watchin' old Outer Limits reruns tryin' to wait it out. Apollo's been takin' it pretty hard ever since Shankles ran 'im off an commandeered that wadin' pool I hauled home from the dump for 'im, the poor guy. Just lays out back under the Coronet with his belly in the air like a dead bass til the sun finally goes down. I hadda go check on 'im two or three times yesterday cause his belly was bloatin' up like a Macy's Thanksgivin' float an I wasn't sure if he'd kicked the bucket or just gotten clogged up again. He's doin' a lot better now though, I think it was just that rabbit head he swallowed Monday night that was stoppin' things up in there an givin' 'im grief. At one point he started makin' noises like somebody wrapped Bigfoot in duct tape an started peelin' it off real slow with a winch, an when I went out to check on 'im he'd laid this smolderin' mound of evil that looked like Donald Trump's hairpiece after a five alarm grease fire tore through it. I been considerin' settin' up a cot outside so I can get at least a little shut-eye one of these nights, but I seen this raccoon hangin' around that walks kinda sideways an tries pickin' fights with the cinder blocks I use to prop up the Topaz, so I'm thinkin' that might not be such a good idea. That screwy booger's either gonna bite me an turn me into a werecoon or try movin' into the house, an I just can't afford either one of those situations. I guess what I'm tryin' to say is, I'm pretty sure I hate Al Gore.

I swear, next year I'm savin' up enough money to get me a swamp cooler an move into the 21st century like the folks in town who can leave their houses without lookin' like somebody uncorked a fire hydrant on 'em. Hadda wait til 2:30 in the AM just so it'd cooled down enough that my brain'd stopped fryin' like an eye in those '80s anti-drug ads, just to be able to absorb what I was takin' in on this one. It's always a good idea to have a clear head when you watch somethin' as intellectually stimulatin' as Just Before Dawn, cause it's prolly the finest mutant hillbilly movie since The Hills Have Eyes, an I'ma be one heck of a swell guy an run down just a few of the subtle nuances that set it apart from the standard killer-in-the-woods flick. First, one should always be on the lookout for trees with dynamite strapped around 'em like Iranian hijackers while enjoyin' nature. Cause if you run your truck into one of those suckers you'll never get all the soot outta your intake manifold. Second, anytime city folks load up their 27' RVs equipped with a deep fryer, dish washer, 54" screen TV, an optional tennis courts, they invariably explain to their yupster friends that they wanna "become one with nature." I've always known these people were disgustin', but I hadn't realized they were THAT disgustin', cause I dunno about you, but when I'm out campin' an nature calls, I make a careful study of the terrain so I'm certain NOT to end up becomin' one with nature. The water out there's freezin', an I'd rather not hafta hop in to scrub all that nature I just let rip offa me. Personally, I recommend a hangin' your butt over a log while gettin' back to nature, but everybody has their own technique so you'll just have to figure out the one that works best for you. An third, if your women wanna come campin' an can't pull their own weight, at least make sure they can pull their own weight watchers frozen entrees or you'll be headin' back to the RV to get the rest of your supplies.

But the thing I really liked about this one was how we finally got some closure regardin' whether or not there's a rule in the slasher handbook against *pretendin'* to have sex in the woods. Ever since Friday the 13th set the standard for these flicks back in 1980, I've always wondered whether you actually hadda make the sign of the triple billed lungfish with somebody to be eligible for death benefits, or whether just pretendin' or even thinkin' about sex would suffice. Now, thanks to Just Before Dawn, we know, definitively, that even a real pitiful actin' performance that involves a hump on a stump is enough to get you dismembered, an probably killed. I suppose it makes sense when you think about it, cause if you're at a protest rally *pretendin'* to hurl Molotov cocktails at the riot police when everybody else's doin' it for real, you're prolly gonna get Rodney King'd on the way to the station just like everybody else. An I think that's fair when you get right down to it, cause you know you're not supposed to be doin' that, now don'tcha? You know how stupid it'd be to try somethin' like that, an you aughta know that since so many of these woodland slashers're either inbred or wearin' masks, they may not even realize you're just fakin' it like a $1000 an hour hooker with a 72 year old man anyway. Specially since they all prolly got home schooled an missed that day in Health class where the teacher'd awkwardly stammer an sweat profusely as they tried explainin' where babies come from to a class fulla kids who'd already found the dirty VHS tapes in their parents' sock drawers. But anyway, let's all take a moment to thank Mr. Lieberman for clearin' that up for us, cause I know that one's been keepin' me up at night like a 12 pack of Surge for years now.

The movie begins with these two hunters (Ty an Vachel) out in the old dilapidated church from Little House on the Prairie cause it's the only place within 100 miles where you can find both Jesus and a good sized whitetail in one convenient location. Then they start talkin' to God an offer 'im a pull offa their Jack Daniels, til Ty looks up through this boulder-sized skylight in the roof an sees a roided-up Clint Howard listenin' in on his sermon, an lookin' none too pleased about Ty havin' no respect for the fact that Jimmy Swaggart once stood on that exact spot in 1972 an was heard to remark; "what the hell's goin' on here, Edgar, you said there'd be broads!" So Ty starts tryin' to shake off his drunk an goes outside to figure out if he's seein' imaginary hippos wearin' work uniforms from the Les Schwab tire center, when all the sudden his pickup comes rollin' down the hill an explodes when it hits this fir tree that's been rigged with dynamite by the left-wing nuts from Earth First! Then Vachel tries to head outside to yell at Ty for checkin' the fuel level with a match again, cept the walrus is waitin' behind the front door, an when Vachel tries leavin' he gets a machete through the ole sperm bank an out his corn-chute. The walrus ain't real smart, cause now he's gonna be dealin' with that smell throughout the entire skinnin' process. But anyway, Ty sees what's goin' on an starts drunk lumberin' his way back to town to buy some shells for his elephant seal gun. Meanwhile, some kids (Warren, Connie, Jonathan, Megan, an Daniel) are drivin' this RV the size of the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile through the woods on an old two-track, til they run over this disembodied mule deer head an hafta stop to make sure it's okay. Warren looks around awhile, an when he comes up empty he just tells everybody that deer regenerate new bodies all the time an that it'll be fine. Elsewhere, George Kennedy's doin' some experimental transplant surgery on his ficus, til the kids come screamin' by an he hasta run outside an tell 'em their devil music's makin' his orchids wilt, an generally go into his Crazy Ralph routine where he forecasts clear skies an a 75% chance of doom when they refuse to turn their Carnival cruise ship around an go back to Tacoma where they belong. Course, the kids ain't about to listen to a man who'd whore 'imself out for a Breath Assure ad, so they press on til Daniel spots Ty makin' like a huckleberry bush to camouflage 'imself an they hafta park the space shuttle again so they can listen to Ty tell 'em about the demons that're after 'im. He don't go into much detail cause the demons're kinda personal, but the short version is that the kids don't buy a word of it an toss 'im some cocoa mix, before drivin' off with Ty chasin' their RV like a wet huntin' dog.

Ty ends up gettin' the last hysterical drunk laugh though, cause about a hundred yards down the road the KFC Colossus drops onto the top of their rig like a plus-sized ninja an pretty quick the engine stalls out from the combination of loose soil on the road an the additional 700lbs it's luggin' around. So now they gotta hoof it the rest of the way, an eventually set up camp in a nice overgrown area where they'll be completely blindsided if the supportin' cast from Deliverance decides to crash their party, only now Warren an Jonathan hafta head back to the RV for the resta the gear cause Daniel an the two women're about as useless as a double amputee at a swim meet an kept whinin' about the straps on their backpacks givin' 'em nipple rub. Then night falls on 'em an the guys still ain't back yet cause they've been waitin' on the outskirts of camp for the last three hours for it to get dark enough to jump out an scare the bejezus outta the girls an act like they don't understand why they're mad at 'em. Only way either of these guys is gettin' any now's if one of 'em can get the other real, real drunk. The next mornin', the group wakes up to the sounds of Peregrin Took singin', an when they're able to figure out where the sound's comin' from they find this girl (Merry Cat) at the bottom of a waterfall, only she splits before they can ask 'er which bushes're safe to wipe their butts with an Warren tells 'em to leave 'er be an not to go chasin' waterfalls. Then they go for a hike an hafta climb across this rope bridge an everybody has a good laugh at Daniel when he just about falls to his death like a wall street investor on Black Friday, an once everybody's tummies stop hurtin' they go rollin' down this hillside like Chinese gymnasts at a tumblin' exhibition. All these near death experiences've gotten Megan an Jon all squishy in their squashy areas, so they go frolic in the pool beneath the waterfall like Chuck Heston in Planet of the Apes til the sadistic sperm whale peeks out from behind the waterfall like Farimir an dives in to remind 'em that the penalty for enterin' the forbidden pool is death. Then Jonathan goes under an vanishes, an pretty quick these skanky hands're gropin' Megan's equipment while she giggles like she's in a co-ed P.E. class with a buncha boys whose shorts're doin' a lousy job of hidin' their erections, til she spots Jonathan climbin' out onto the bank. It's about this point where Megan pretty well freaks out an breaks the Olympic record for the 100 meter breaststroke while tryin' to avoid puttin' 'er eyes out, only when she makes it up onto the bank an starts tellin' Jonathan about gettin' panty raided he just tells 'er to calm down an to quit makin' up lurid stories that might ruin the waterfall's social standin' in the community.

Later that night, George hears his horse goin' apeshit an hasta head outside to pull Ty's face outta the water trough before he gets too much whiskey vomit in there an upsets the horse's applecart. Once Ty's gotten ahold of his bandana an blown all the algae boogers out of his nose, he tells George about Vachel, the backwoods sumo wrestler ridin' squatgun on toppa the kids' RV, an all the reasons why his wife leavin' weren't his fault, til George gets this look on his face like he just caught a buncha deer eatin' his marijuana plants. Back at camp, Megan's startin' to miss the feelin' of gettin' groped by strange hands, an starts bumpin' an grindin' on anything with a pulse, til whatever's affectin' 'er brain spreads to the rest of camp an we end up bein' exposed to some of the most awkward white people dancin' outside of amateur night at Walleye's Topless Dancin' an Bait Shop. Then this elderly religious fundy who looks like Rory Calhoun after bein' lost in Yellowstone for two weeks shows up with his dumpy wife an Merry Cat, before blastin' the kids' tape deck an tellin' 'em to get the heck outta there before they raise the devil. The kids figure the old guy's just mad cause his old frail hands don't have what it takes to beat Satan in a fiddlin' contest no more an don't pay the rubes no mind. The next mornin', Megan awakens to find 'er makeup kit missin' an Jonathan figures if she's gonna keep takin' 'er clothes off, he's gonna want somethin' to look at, so he heads out into the woods figurin' that all he's gotta do is find the raccoon that's made up like Tammy Faye Bakker an he'll have found the culprit. What he finds instead is Merry Cat lookin' like she got Mary Kay'd up by Helen Keller, an when he walks over to 'er she tells 'im she saw his city sticker while he was skinnydippin' yesterday an starts smoochin' on 'im til he remembers the size of Pa's scattergun an decides discretion's the better part of gettin' to keep your pecker. Merry Cat's P.O.'d, so she takes off up the hillside an makes like she's gonna cross the rope bridge, only she sees somethin' on the other side an starts duckin' an coverin' behind a rock like Smokey the Bear just initiated one of those nuclear fallout drills they used to do in the 80s where everybody pretended like havin' a desk over your head'd shield you from the radiation. When he sees 'er recoil from the rope bridge, Jonathan figures this's his big chance to show 'er what a bigshot he is, so he starts showin' 'er how to slink across til the cone-headed grease monkey chops the rope an leaves 'im clingin' to it like a glob of barbecue sauce to a ZZ Top beard. Then Jon hasta muster his inner gym class jock an climb the rope up the cliffside, only when he gets to the top he realizes the Ogremensch's portaged his portliness across the river, an pretty quick Jon gets kicked into the river like a poorly placed worm box.

Back at camp, Daniel's wandered off to do some photography an braid wildflowers into his hair, til he ends up wanderin' into the old church an gets the crap scared out of 'im by Megan. This is understandable, since you'd imagine a harlot of her magnitude shoulda burned up on entry. Then they head outside to look at the graveyard an honor the brave men an women who were bored to death over the years by doldrumic dogma, an once that wears thin Daniel decides to take some glamour shots of Megan playin' dead for the next Judas Priest album cover. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of the flannel-clad mashed potato man who saunters over an shish-kabobs Daniel like a goat at a Mexican cookout, an once Daniel's been staked to the ground like an old rusty swing set, Flab Hunter chases Megan inside where she's ambushed by a second heap of sentient gelatin. Meanwhile, Warren an Connie're down at the river about to make like a coupla salmon during spawnin' season, cept Jon kinda spoils the mood an the water's potability when his corpse spills down over the falls an leaks intestine juice all over. Women're way too sensitive about this kinda thing, I dunno why we even bother sometimes. Anyway, Warren figures it's prolly time to pack it in since anytime he gets close to scorin' somethin' always fouls his fark plug, cept when the two of 'em get back to camp they can't find nobody an end up wanderin' over to the old coot's place to see if he can recommend a good cut of meat offa their dead buddy. Pa tells 'em to get off his property an lets 'em know that he's shot more progressive folks'n them for a lot less. So that night, after developin' a new arrhythmia anytime an owl hoots, Warren decides he's gonna go grab the keys offa Jon so they can try to make it back to town in time to see what the dinner special is at the Shari's. While that's goin' on, George finally makes it to Grandpapa Jupiter's place an asks the old crank if he's seen a buncha entitled city punks with bad haircuts pass through, only it takes Merry Cat turnin' traitor before George gets any intel, an once George's outta sight Mom 'n Pop go apeshit an start screamin' about how Merry's brothers may well have the devil inside 'em, but as long as she lives under their leakin' roof it's kinfolk before menfolk. Merry's had it with all the snake handlin' goin' on in this house, an the religious tripe's startin' to get old too, so she runs outta there an promises to show George where the kids' camp is. Speakin' of which, Connie's gettin' just a teensy bit jittery listenin' to all the crunchin' an wheezin' noises that sound like Antonin Scalia makin' his way through the Golden Corral buffet line, an it's not long afterwards that she's set upon by one of the gargantuan goofs, who runs 'er up a tree like a coonhound on a cougar. Better cut it off here so the poor guy can catch his breath. I don't wanna be the cause of anybody's aortic blowin' like the pop-off valve on a water heater.

Alrighty, well, Just Before Dawn was released right around the time we'd hit peak killer-in-the-woods production, so for that reason you might get the idea that it's just a run-of-the-mill entry in the subgenre that exists solely to cash in on the success of Friday the 13th. You'd be mistaken though, because while the latter might be true, the former is certainly not the case. And truthfully, even though a lot of the entries in this subgenre are a bit subpar (think Don't Go in the Woods), there are a few that're not only good, but even surpass some of the Friday the 13th movies in overall quality. Just Before Dawn is definitely one of the best among those flicks that lack name recognition with the general public, and I'd say that while it's not quite up to par with the better Friday the 13th sequels, it's at least better than the original, and Part V. Madman's another flick made in the same vein that upstages many of the Friday the 13th sequels, but that never seems to get the credit it deserves. Dawn, however, tends to stand apart from the others because it's far more akin to Deliverance (which the director has stated he had in mind while making the movie) than Friday the 13th, which is the flick most of the subsequent clones modeled themselves after. It's also fairly similar to both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and particularly The Hills Have Eyes, though Jeff Lieberman has stated that he had not seen either before he began work on Dawn. I see no reason to disbelieve him, considering he was willing to state the name of the flick he did borrow from. Something else that makes Dawn stand out against the seemingly endless sea of forest slashers, is just how good the production values are. I mean, compare this movie to The Forest for instance and the difference is staggering. Now granted, Lieberman went to great lengths to create a chilling atmosphere through the use of exceptional cinematography, an excellent setting, and a well crafted soundtrack, rather than excessive gore. But all that really means is that he had to work twice as hard to hold the audience's attention, so it's clear he didn't limit the special effects just to save money, he obviously had a vision of how things were supposed to turn out, and he definitely achieved that. Honestly, Lieberman's approach is the more gutsy of the two standard methodologies when making a forest slasher, because you're always going to be able to make a fun movie no matter what, provided you fill it with exploding heads. What he opted to do is far more difficult, and his approach offers a greater reward due to the greater risk, because if you allow people to get bored, there's no getting them back, and a horror flick with minimal gore always runs the risk of coming off dull.

Guess there's nothin' left to do but impale this thing through the wingdings and see if its got the huevos to run with the big dogs. The plot is standard cookie cutter fare, where the teenagers go into the woods, but they don't come out. What little variance you get in these flicks is generally localized entirely to the *reason* the kids are goin' into the woods, and the motivation of the mouth breather(s) they find once they get there. This one does have the added twist of having twin colossi, but it's not a particularly surprising element due to the early foreshadowing. If they'd cut out that scene early on with the twin children in the gutted car on the roadside where Gregg Henry remarks "sure are a lot of twins around here", it would've been more of a surprise. So in all fairness, the plot doesn't offer too much that we haven't seen before, despite having some little details that give it a more polished appearance than other killer-in-the-woods flicks. The acting falls just short of the amazing shooting locations in terms of providing the biggest contribution to the film's overall success. I'm not gonna claim that many of the main characters are particularly interesting, but they're all at least very well defined, and well acted. That said, I must point out that the version I watched was the butchered 90 minute cut, rather than the extended European cut with 12 additional minutes of dialog scenes. I suspect those scenes, despite bogging the flick down a bit, probably give the audience a better idea of who these people are, and likely helps generate more sympathy towards their predicament. You'll want the Code Red release to get that version, so forget the Shriek Show release unless you want the bonus extras. The most interesting characters are all part of the hillbilly homestead, and it's they who make the movie interesting. George Kennedy doesn't really add too much for the five or so minutes he's in the movie, and was likely cast for no better reason than to attain some semblance of star power. An M. Emmett Walsh, Barry Corbin, or a Donald Pleasence would've really made that character a lot more entertaining, but I don't get to decide these things. Here's who matters and why, less George cause he's a fairly popular guy: Mike Kellin (Sleepaway Camp), Chris Lemmon (Wishmaster), Gregg Henry (Guardians of the Galaxy, Slither, Star Trek: Insurrection, Fair Game 1988, Bates Motel 1987), Deborah Benson (Mutant on the Bounty, Ghost Fever), Ralph Seymour (The Relic, Killer Party, Ghoulies), Charles Bartlett (Jaws 4, Ratboy, Meteor 1979). Of course, a side effect of having decent actors is that they end up losin' their way and often fall in with bad crowds, for instance: Gregg Henry would likely be remembered as Val Resnick in Payback, and for playing Detective John Felkner in Super. While, Chris Lemmon is probably best known for playing Val Resnick on the TV series Thunder in Paradise alongside The Hulkster.

The special effects, as I mentioned earlier, are few and far between. We do get a pretty good opening jolt when the inbred walrus shoves his machete clean through a guy's wangdoodle and out the other side, although the blood for that scene was really off-tint and almost looked brown. Unless of course, it wasn't blood. Additionally, we've got the scene where Ralph Seymour gets gored through the gizzards, which is also decent (with better blood coloration), and a small hack on Chris Lemmon's paw. Because of the direction this film takes, and intends to take from the onset, I'm not inclined to ding it for the underwhelming volume of gore, so the rating will still be pretty good for this section. The shooting locations are likely the best part of the movie, and for once I'm not saying that because the rest of the movie sucks. The cinematography is top notch, with the bulk of the flick being shot in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon. I say the bulk of it, because the old church used in the film was a structure that the crew actually built, so I'm assuming they didn't build that on state property without permission. The cinematography really does a great job of conveying a sense of isolation, on top of just looking amazing. The old church building is also a really nice set, and looks utterly authentic. I'd have never figured it was something the crew built for the shoot, as it not only seems to belong in that area, but also looks very old and weather-beaten. The cemetery outside is kinda inconsistent though, as many of the tombstones look pretty recent in comparison to the building. Still, very impressive shooting locations, very well scouted and photographed. The soundtrack is also a winner, with a genuinely ominous feeling. It also incorporates the sound of the self-defense whistle used by a couple of the characters, and that blending of a sound effect, that's only used in the more dire moments of the movie, brings an additional level of dark, foreboding atmosphere to an already great score. The score utilizes both synthesized tracks and regular instrumentals, and the composer very clearly knew where to use each type. The instrumentals are probably the best, and feature some great string tracks that remind one of Hellraiser at times. Additionally, the director/editor knew when to insert the music and when not to, so there aren't any scenes that beg for dead silence being ruined by scoring. The composer, Brad Fiedel, went on to have a pretty successful career, having done the scores for Eyes of Fire, Terminator 1 & 2, Fright Night 1 & 2, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and many others, so clearly the guy has talent. Overall, very underrated film, and one of the better entries in the slasher cycle, check it out.

Rating: 70%