Just Before Dawn (1981)

Just Before Dawn (1981)

Will Anyone Survive Those Hours Just Before Dawn?

Five campers set off on a weekend excursion to a remote piece of land that one of them has inherited. They are warned by the local ranger that there is a machete-wielding maniac loose in the woods who has been terrorising people but the group ignore his warnings as simple scaremongering. However what they find is much worse as a family of hillbillies wants them off the land, sending their massive machete-wielding son out to kill them.

 

More akin to the barmy backwoods mentality of Deliverance and brutal realism of The Hills Have Eyes than the teenage slash fests of Friday the 13th that it’s commonly branded with, Just Before Dawn has a large fan base within the horror community but is little-known outside of it. There are infinitely more famous horror films from the early 80s including the original My Bloody Valentine and The Burning but this one never seems to get a mention. Maybe it’s because the few people who have seen it don’t like it because it’s not the all-out slasher that they were expecting. Maybe it’s simply because it seems to have been released a little too late and would have fitted perfectly into the mid-70s backwoods horror cycle. To anyone who has seen the likes of Wrong Turn but hasn’t seen this, then consider Just Before Dawn an older, more toned down version.

Just Before Dawn takes a while to get going. The first thirty minutes or so are filled with your standard character development threads but thankfully this group of people aren’t just mind-numbingly dull and generic teenagers but responsible, mature young adults who make rational decisions and feel ‘real.’ They’re actually out in the woods to climb and explore, not to get drunk and smoke weed. Of all the shocks! The characters that last longer in the film really get fleshed out and traverse some wonderful arcs as different characters show their true selves under the stress of the situation. The alpha male, ‘not-scared-of-anything’ guy turns into a complete wuss by the end and the meek, timid ‘final girl’ steps up to the task of trying to get the group out alive. The transformations are handled well and they don’t seem out of place.

During this time, there are plenty of stalking scenes with the huge, bulky mountain man watching on from a distance. You always get the feeling that this guy is within a few feet of the group at all times, you just can’t see him. The film doesn’t follow usual convention by having the killer suddenly jump out and shout boo with a huge blast of sound. The scares and tension come from within existing shots. People will be talking to each other, kissing or doing something else and you’ll see the killer in the background either coming towards them or getting himself into position (I’ll call you a liar if you tell me you don’t get chills when he swings onto the camper van). This goes on for too long though and its way too drawn out, leading to lots of dull stretches where little happens. The killer spends too much time lurking and not enough time chopping. It’s this stop-start mentality that harms Just Before Dawn in the long run. You think its picking up a bit of steam only for it to suddenly stop and have to start from scratch.

Just Before Dawn scores massive points with the locations it was filmed in. The cinematography is exceptional and the forest wilderness has never looked more dangerous. The camera lingers over some excellent panoramic shots to really give you the sense that these people are stuck in the middle of nowhere. Waterfalls, rock faces, dense forests and unforgiving trails all lead to nowhere. There’s no help coming. These people are here on there own. It nails the realism aspect down to a tee. Also nailed down is the blood. Considering the era in which this film was made, it’s unusual to see that the film keeps its gore to a bare minimum. During the early 80s, blood was thrown around like confetti at a wedding but director Jeff Liebermann opts to keep things low key. Don’t get me wrong, there are a couple of decent pay-offs where blood is necessary but Just Before Dawn doesn’t need to resort to these cheap tricks to get a kick out of the audience. It uses it’s locations to generate tension and the previously mentioned use of shots of the killer to ramp up the fear factor.

Amongst the cast attempting to survive these harsh lands are a few names which will no doubt ring a bell with people. George Kennedy is the feature name on show here and, although he spends the majority of the film riding around the woods on a white horse like some pompous Roman general, he’s still able to lend some heavyweight credibility to the film. Gregg Henry, who may be more familiar to genre fans as his role as the mayor in Slither, is the unlucky guy to have inherited the land in the middle of nowhere. Performances across the board are decent enough because the script keeps the characters real. These people aren’t trying to fit into generic stereotypes and come off all the more lifelike as a result.

 

I can see why Just Before Dawn is so well thought-of in the horror genre with it’s brutal realism sandwiched between some downright eerie moments and decent scares. But then I can see why it’s little-known to anyone else with its heel-dragging, sluggishness and insistence to keep things low key. It stands out from its 80 teen horror rivals by a country mile but can’t hold a candle to its more respected backwoods horror brethren.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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