Just Before Dawn (1981)
Just Before Dawn (1981)

Genre: Slasher Running Time: 1 hr. 30 min.

Release Date: November 27th, 1981 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Jeff Lieberman Actors: George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Kati Powell, John Hunsaker, Jamie Rose, Charles Bartlett

 


 

V

achel (Charles Bartlett) and his uncle Ty (Mike Kellin) poke around a rickety old church, downing alcohol and celebrating having bagged a buck. But their revelry is cut short by a wheezing, cackling, portly stranger who pushes Vachel’s truck down a hill, causing it to burst into flames, before using an enormous, serrated blade to stab Vachel through the groin. Ty flees in a panic, just as a quintet of college kids drives up the mountainside to their 4,000 foot camping destination: an inherited stretch of property near Silver Lake.

“Any of you done any serious climbin’ before?” Area 27 Forest Ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy) warns the youngsters about the dangerous woodlands, but they laugh off his concerns, confident that they’re fit for the journey. Even the ravings of Ty, who emerges from the dense premises covered in dirt, trembling and moaning about demons, isn’t enough to deter the fivesome from proceeding onward and upward. Warren (Gregg Henry), Jonathan (Chris Lemmon), Daniel (Ralph Seymour), Connie (Deborah Benson), and Megan (Jamie Rose) are so enthused about the trip that they don’t even notice the hulking figure clambering onto the back of their camper.

The sensational music by Brad Fiedel sounds fit for a sci-fi thriller, save for the unnerving whistles that crop up from time to time as a striking leitmotif. It’s a strong component for this low-budget, relatively unknown slasher, which features no stars but refuses to fail in the expected, typical ways that tend to plague similar features. As a second surprising windfall, the actors are all quite competent. Unlike in its cheesier, shoddier, exploitation brethren, the performances are notably convincing; despite the pranks, the drinking, the canoodling, and the youthful chatter, the characters never betray a sense of amateurishness. There are even a number of stunts that appear beyond the limitations of the production.

In yet another unusual element of higher quality, the cinematography is astounding. The exterior shots highlight the beauty of the Silver Falls State Park in Oregon, which present a rare environment for alternating terror and wonder. Even the nighttime sequences are sharp, boasting distinct contrasts and clear imagery. The terrain provides continual amusement – from slopes to slide down, to waterfalls to bathe in, to rope bridges to cross, to fallen tree trunks to circumvent. All are minor obstacles that thwart a group of unprepared city folk who certainly aren’t ready to combat a deranged, machete-wielding killer.

It’s obvious that “Just Before Dawn” borrows some of its scares and survival horror from “Deliverance,” while its approach to filming has notes of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” But it also feels fresh in its sense of slow stalking and believable panic and fear. The protagonists may make the classic mistakes of splitting up, ignoring threats, and wandering off alone (as well as donning tight clothing, skinny-dipping, and making out), but there’s a steadiness to the pacing, a subtle realism to the attacks, and creative shots for suspense that set the film apart. The body count is low and the gore is minimal (the ugliest deaths take place offscreen) but neither aspect detracts from the effectiveness (though the finale is a touch over-the-top). “Just Before Dawn” is, all in all, a surprisingly good slasher. “There’s no more demons!”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10