JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981)
“Keep breeding in the same family and something’s bound to snap.”
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After revisiting Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm I decided to check out his 1981 slasher Just Before Dawn. I honestly don’t remember if I have ever seen it before and as I watched it, nothing rang a bell, so this may be the first time watching this flick for me. The film follows the late 70s’ early 80s slasher formula and adds a hint of Chainsaw Massacre, as it tells the story of five youths who travel up to some recently inherited property deep in the remote Oregon mountains. Despite the ominous warnings of old park ranger, Mr. McLean (George Kennedy) and the appearance of a drunk and quite frightened hunter (Mike Kellin), they enter the woods to enjoy the great outdoors. Obviously there are some local inhabitants who are not exactly thrilled at the intrusion and have a violent way of showing it…of course had the warnings these kids received been less vague…
Co-written… with Mark Arywitz and Jonas Middleton…and directed by Lieberman, this backwoods slasher is moderately paced much like his Squirm and generally most of the horrors of this era. The body count is fairly small and despite a gruesome opening scene kill, a lot of the carnage occurs off-screen. But the film does have a nice atmosphere and there is something just a little off about the flick to make it interesting, despite being fairly routine on the surface. I wouldn’t say it’s a strange movie outright, but there is something a bit odd about it that I can’t quite put my finger on and this slightly unsettling aspect did give it some extra points. The film is well shot by Dean and Joel King and the music by Brad Fiedel is creepy and adds some atmosphere to it as well. Throw in some 80s nostalgia and this was a decent enough 80s horror flick to pass the time.
The cast are a bit livelier than Lieberman’s Squirm. George Kennedy is solid as always. Gregg (Slither) Henry is our lead male and he is fine as the cocky Warren who actually surprises us a bit by losing some of that swagger when things start to go wrong. Cutie Deborah Benson is Warren’s girlfriend Connie, who also surprises us when this fish out of water rises to the occasion against the serrated machete wielding mountain folk. Rounding out our young vacationers are Jaime Rose as the promiscuous Megan, Chris Lemmon as Jonathan and Ralph (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) Seymour as Jonathan’s photographer brother, Daniel. They are all suitable in their roles as potential mountain folk fodder and are an attractive cast, as is the custom with these flicks. The rest of the supporting cast are appropriately creepy playing various mountain locals including pretty Katie Powell as Merry and big John Hunsaker as the deranged blade carrying killer. Hunsacker also gives his loony a bit of an off-putting sense of humor to add to his imposing size and inbred looks.
I liked this flick. On the outside it is a routine backwoods slasher, but there was enough atmosphere and odd touches throughout to keep me entertained despite the low body count and lengthy stretches between kills. There wasn’t much suspense, but the film had enough of the traditional elements to keep my attention and a few off-kilter moments, too. Not a bad flick to throw in with the more renown classics, especially when watching some 80s slashers during the Halloween season, or with a summer slasher marathon!
Rated 3 (out of 4) serrated machetes.