Just Before Dawn (1981)

: Jeff Lieberman
Starring:George Kennedy, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson. USA. 1h 42m

While gearing up to write a review for Satan’s Little Helper (2004) I finally deciding to actually investigate who directed it and low and behold it happens to be the pretty well known director Jeff Lieberman better known for his earlier films such as Squirm (1976) and the hippy flashback from hell Blue Sunshine (1978) but while I passed through life totally oblivious to directors, I never would have connected the two as the style is so very different but in between these amazing varied classics comes another slightly different movie, a backwoods slasher with a very different atmosphere to a lot of the other genre specific slashers of the era. Just Before Dawn is a menacing thriller that takes a very sly stab from time to time.

Opening with a pair of hunters being attacked and killed in and around an abandoned church, the film soon cuts to a group of five college kids who are heading into the area to visit a rural property that one of them has inherited, despite the warnings from the local forest ranger Roy (Kennedy) they blindly head out to have some some fun without a care in the world. After reaching a point where they have to abandon their vehicle and head out on foot they start noticing strange things, but as a couple of the jocks within the group keep playing tricks on the group when things really start to get dangerous the group are initially oblivious to this and it comes as a big shock to realise they are being stalked, toyed with and have become a target of a deranged machete wielding killer or killers.
While remaining quite distant from other slashers with its unique filming and the general atmosphere, it’s easy to see similarities to such films as Friday the 13th (1980) and/or The Burning (1981) or even maybe Deliverance (1972). The camera often seems to be in love with the surrounds, the lush eden like wilderness that the group seem to thoroughly enjoy despite the killer lurking in the brush. When required the films tone instantly drops into a bleak terror filled nightmare and it happens quite a lot. One moment someone skinny dipping and might feel something touch their leg, but then the next a hulking killbilly is lumbering over an innocent with a bloody saw edged machete.

The formula of the group is pretty standard, the strong good looking guy and equally strong and good looking gal, the jerk and a chick who freaks out a lot, everything that you’d expect. But their dynamics is very different, especially at the gut wrenching ending which I didn’t see coming and especially from the hands of the most unsuspecting hero. While I don’t want to destroy the magic, someone has to let me know if this has ever happened in any other film (other that maybe something like Riki O (1991))
Lieberman certainly has a need to try different things, I might have to rewatch the back catalogue to refresh myself but Squirm left a lasting impression with its gore and putrid wrigglinness, almost akin to Cronenberg and his psychout body horror Shivers (1975), while Blue Sunshine had a vivid manic spaced out feel that if pushed could have gone into Jodorowsky style project if there was the drive.
I haven’t had this movie suggested or recommended to me in the past so I’m putting this in the underrated film bucket as it’s a wonderful slasher with healthy levels of drama and gore, just enough blood and slashing to attract the average fan base but it’s not applied that heavily, maybe it could be more graphic, for me, I found the film really rewarding and it goes out with a bang!!

Rating 6 /10

R: Satan’s Little Helper (2004), Friday the 13th (1980), The Burning (1981)
L: Hillybiily Horrors,
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