JUST BEFORE DAWN (UK pre-cert video cover)
JUST BEFORE DAWN
(1980)
4 stars   Cheese Rating: 50% Fiesty Frommage!

"Without doubt the most poweful movie of its kind since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."- Movieline


directed by: Jeff Lieberman
starring: George Kennedy, Deborah Benson, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Jamie Rose, Mike Kellin, Ralph Seymour, John Hunsaker

(back of video blurb):
       "Despite the local Ranger's ominous warning, a part of three boys and two girls take a camping trip to the mountain where the father of one of them has some property.

       In the steamy backwoods they sense an atmosphere of mounting tension. Soon they realise there is some deadly horror lurking in the woods. The Ranger had been right!

       They meet a strange girl and her equally strange family. Then one of them is murdered...then another...and another...

       Will any of them survive those dark hours JUST BEFORE DAWN?"

choice dialogue:

"I can't really blame you for getting a little shaky from all that... blood."

slash with panache?

       A superb film which stands head-and-shoulders above the usual backwoods slasher movie.

       The film opens with a couple of hunters being terrorised, and one of them being killed by, a hulking ,barely glimpsed menace that hangs back in the shadows, watching, clutching a meaty machete and sniggering like Muttly (as in Dastardly and Muttly from WACKY RACES!)- something which should be ridiculous, but is, in fact, rather disturbing. One of the hunters manages to flee into the dark, after hearing the screams of his friend- the killerís sniggering and piggy squealing ringing in his ears... The film then takes what would seem to be a highly generic turn- The five teen campers in happier times...introducing five teenagers travelling into the deep woods in a mobile home, listening incidentally to Blondieís ĎHeart of Glassí. They stumble upon the home of the forest ranger- a miscast George Kennedy,( I mean, itís like Leslie Nielsen, you just canít take the man seriously after AIRPLANE!- especially as, in JUST BEFORE DAWN he spends a fair bit of his time either talking to plants or his horse, Agatha! ). I digress... Kennedy warns them against camping around the wooded mountain. One of the teens explains that he has been left land there and has the deeds to prove it. "The mountain donít read", intones Kennedy ominously. Brushing off the doom-saying the teens ignore his veiled warning and bundle back in the camper. Kennedy just manages another jibe- "At least tell me where youíre going so when you donít come back Iíll know how to fill out the report!", as their vehicle disappears further into the woods. They come across the hunter, who had escaped from the killer, raving about "Demons, DEMONS!". Surmising the only demons around here come from the bottle of moonshine he is clutching, they choose to ignore his inebriated pleas not to be left on his own and leave him staggering and spluttering. As they pull away the man sees the killer jump from the dense woodland and attach himself to their vehicle- unbeknownst to the happy campers inside. Eventually the trail becomes too narrow for the mobile home and they continue on foot, setting up camp by a picturesque alternative video artwork for JUST BEFORE DAWNwaterfall. They go about their care-free teen business; disco dancing around the campfire; skinny-dipping and discussing make-up. Only one of the girls- Constance, begins to sense that something is amiss and starts to become a little jumpy. Her boyfriend reassures her, "Thereís nothing out there but Godís little creatures, theyíre more scared of you than you are of them."- wrong! It is only on the sudden discovery of a backwoods family- who make their presence known by blowing away the groupís groovy, disco blaring tape recorder with a shotgun (!), that the rest of the group have any inkling of their fate. But despite more warnings to get away from where they are not wanted, the group continues to plunge deeper into the wilderness. All the while a presence keeps a silent vigil watching their every move, the hulking shape with gleaming machete only a few steps behind...

       JUST BEFORE DAWN is clearly part of the backwoods slasher cycle initiated by the success of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), but, as with, Liebermanís other, earlier, genre films- the excellent, and distinctive, SQUIRM and BLUE SUNSHINE (both 1976), it manages to somehow transcend itís limitations. Despite a myriad of influences, everything from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) to DELIVERANCE (1972) and the slew of then-in-vogue teenie-kill epics, JUST BEFORE DAWN carves itself out a special niche. Although, essentially, it is another city people vs. homicidal country folk, the boundaries are a little more blurred than in, say, MOTHERíS DAY (1980)- where the differences and similarities between both camps are purposefully exaggerated to the point of become a live action gore cartoon and broad social pastiche. In JUST BEFORE DAWN the townies do commit faux-pasí, like dropping their rubbish onto the woodland floor, but you get the feeling this isnít why they are being hunted- they would be hunted down regardless. The teens are also not portrayed as One of the hulking killers in JUST BEFORE DAWN...complete fish out of water, Constance, it is mentioned, is a climbing champion. And they seem completely at ease in the wilderness, whilst still enjoying the trappings of modern life- the girls are constantly fixing their make up. They are also not your average bunch of teens. There is a bit of the expected high, and low, jinks, but they are a likeable bunch who are uniformly well played. The killers- there are two, twin brothers (not something the film keeps hidden for long), are complete ciphers. In the same way Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN (1978) had no personality, no face; these shambling hunks of meat similarly are blank canvasí, giggling killing machines with no rhyme-nor-reason. The film hints at the origins of their homicidal tendencies; inbreeding or townies trespassing, but there never is a clear motive. You just kind of get the feeling these graceless monsters just enjoy the feeling of embedding their machetes into flesh.

       The natural surroundings, the woods appear to be both benign and intimidating. Instead of being part of the action like in his earlier SQUIRM, where nature actually revolts, it just appears to be a lifeless, if scenic, voyeur. Watching the action unfold, like a dead fishes eye. Running water seems to be a visual theme ...notice the killer in the backgound!and, at times, it is in every shot; be it babbling brook or waterfall. A soothing backdrop, but one which will prove fatal for one of the campers. It also provides the backdrop for one of the filmís most effective moments, where one of the girls, who is skinny-dipping, is grabbed and pawed by one of the killers from under the water. She thinks it is her boyfriend- who had pretended to drown only minutes before, until she sees him stagger from the lake at the waters edge. Kind of updating the classic Ďif-Iím-not-holding-your-hand-then-whose-hand-am-I-holding?í scare from THE HAUNTING (1963).

       There are two further stand out scenes. The first where two of the teens are kissing- intentionally trying to tease the girls prankster boyfriend, who they think is watching them, but who is in-fact already dead. The boy, who has misplaced his glasses, watches with bemusement over the girlís shoulder as a blurred, lumbering shape emerges from the bushes and shambles towards them. Not only until the killer is actually almost upon them does the boy realise it is not his errant brother and, by then, it is too late. He falls to the floor, a machete messily protruding from his stomach (click here to see screen grabs from this scene to screen captures of this scene... ).... The second scene is the once-seen-never-forgotten dťnouement where the Constance- the filmís final girl, takes the expected fight back scene to a whole new level of shocking absurdism. For those of you who havenít seen the film, letís just say it gives the term Ďfistingí a whole new meaning!...(if you would like to see what I really mean, click here to screen captures of this scene... )

       It may just of been my hangover that gave this film a slightly ethereal feel. God knows, a bad hangover can give the most mundane occurrence a surreal sheen! But no, from watching some of his other genre films it seems that Lieberman has an uncanny knack of taking the most pedestrian and tired material,...this unfortunate girl finds herself sandwiched between the two killers! and somehow imbuing it with, for want of a better word- magic. A sense of unpredictability, that feeling that something is about to Ďgo-offí- a cinematic loose cannon if you like, that doesnít let the viewer relax into anticipation of generic and safe thrills. Unfortunately, Liebermanís genre gems are rare things indeed, JUST BEFORE DAWN being his last foray into horror. Whether or not he tired of making genre films, or he simply couldnít raise any money, I donít know. But his unique talents seem wasted on straight to video kiddie fair like NEVER ENDING STORY III (1994)- which is the last film he directed.

       JUST BEFORE DAWN is a neglected gem. It may be difficult to track down, but it is more than worth the effort.


BODYCOUNT 6  bodycount!   female:1 / male:5

       1) Male run through with machete
       2) Male teen is pushed from cliff top and drowns
       3) Male teen impaled on a machete  to screen captures of this scene...
       4) Female teen killed (method not seen)
       5) Male shot dead
       6) Male chokes to death on girl's fist!  to screen captures of this scene...        

Click here:      to read my interview with Jeff Lieberman!        

Click here:       to see US one-sheet cinema poster

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