Just Before Dawn (1981) is an American slasher directed by Jeff Lieberman. For those that remember Jeff, he also directed the bane of all slithering existence, Squirm (1976). In Just Before Dawn, Jeff takes on the burgeoning slasher phenomenon that was sweeping theaters. We typically don’t do reaction posts here at Malevolent Dark because we appreciate the opinions of our horror peers, even when we disagree. The only reason I am making an exception today is because I really can’t get with opinion of Todd Martin in his 2013 review of Just Before Dawn (1981). In the article, he makes the rather bold statement:
it is one of the most underrated slasher flicks of all time.
This film seems to get some kind of retrospective love that we really can’t understand. Anyway, much love to Todd Martin and HorrorNews.net for doing what they do.
Another Film About the Dangers of Camping
The story begins rather quickly with an assault on a couple of hunters in an old abandoned church. Right from the start, Jeff Lieberman makes a serious departure from standard slashers of the day. Within moments, the audience get a decent look at the killers face as he peers through a hole in the roof. By this time, the masked slasher had become a staple of the genre. Interestingly, that very same year, a film called Final Exam (1981) made a similar move by introducing an unmasked killer.
From here the film travels very familiar ground. An RV full of attractive college students bumbles through the woods on its way to a unmarked campground in the mountains. On the way, they meet the great George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke (1967) playing the local conservation officer, Roy McLean. As the story goes, one of the travelers named Warren just came into possession of some land, and he wants to claim the territory with his friends.
Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum (Spoilers)
In an otherwise derivative plot-line, Lieberman at brings to the table a killer, or rather a pair of killers that really don’t have a comparison. Lieberman introduces a pair of twin, in-bred, backwoods, hillbilly killers that refuse to share any characteristics with the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Twins have been used in many films as a plot-twist, but Lieberman reveals this rather brazenly and also very early in the film.
The killers make no attempt to hide their identity. They giggle and chuckle as they torment their victims. In one scene, one of the killers merrily slaps one of the girls with the flat side of his machete as she tries to flee. We later find out that the twins are the product of an inbred mountain family. Frankly, a comparison to Deliverance might be more appropriate than any comparison to slashers films.
“One of the Most Underrated Slasher Flicks of All Time”
So yeah, Lieberman’s film breaks some parts of the slasher mold in some places. However, in other areas it languishes. The acting could not be less compelling. When Warren (Gregg Henry) and Constance (Deborah Benson) find their friend Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) floating down the river dead, they show no more emotion than if they just spilled their beer. Later, Warren deadpans his pleas for help to Roy McLean. None of the characters comes off as especially likable or dynamic, and that makes them expendable. This includes the female lead, Constance.
The backdrop of the film is fantastic. The films setting, and actual filming location was in the Pacific Northwest. The countryside of Oregon is fantastically beautiful. The camera manages to capture this beauty in the same way an tourist does. The images are beautiful, but they don’t necessarily capture the sprawling expanse of the mountain.
Cinematographers Joel King and Dean King, faithfully capture the lackluster performances of the cast and decently frame their shots, but we did not find the photography to be an especially strong aspect to Just Before Dawn. Many scenes are feel flat, and constrained for space, despite the sprawling expanse of the shooting location. Had it not been for the locations natural beauty it might have been really mundane and uninspired.
A Couple of Tricks Up Jeff’s Sleeve
One aspect of Jeff Lieberman’s work that stands out is the preservation of atmosphere. Much like the techniques used by Bob Clark and team in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), the non-stop drone of crickets, frogs and birds immerse the viewer and replace the depth that the cinematography fails to capture. While it seems a small addition, it actually goes a long way to keep this film from sliding into a narcoleptic abyss.
In another interesting anecdote, it was was also 1981 when the aforementioned Final Exam was released. That film featured not only the unmasked killer, but the final girl goes off the rails by maniacally slashing the killer to pieces in a acute brush with insanity. Not to be outdone, Constance takes this to the wicked extreme. She literally reaches into the mouth and down the throat of the killer, up to the elbow no less. She either suffocates him or pulls his gizzard out. Lieberman definitely goes big in his finale, but it fails to make up for lost time.
Hindsight – Both 20/20 and Sometimes With Rose Colored Glasses
We started this entry challenging the claim that Just Before Dawn is “one of the most underrated slasher flicks of all time.” It seemed like a fun way to get the conversation going on this one. To date, this film had escaped our awareness, so it’s always nice to learn about new material. That being said, something continues to push film to the periphery. Based on our viewing, we understand why. This film is not underrated. Just Before Dawn is painfully an average film, and Malevolent Dark does not consider to be some unheralded classic.
Still, Jeff Liberman does create a film with several unique qualities when compared to other entries in the slasher genre. Horror fans looking for deep cuts or students of 80s horror may find something worth seeing in the film.
Just Before Dawn (1981) - Don't Believe the Hype - Malevolent Dark
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33