Directed by: Jeff Lieberman
Written by: Mark Arywitz, Jeff Lieberman, Jonas Middleton
Starring: George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell, John Hunsaker
Music by: Brad Fiedel
Taglines: “Will Anyone Survive Those Hours Just Before Dawn?”
After one of their number obtains a plot of land high up in the mountains, a group of friends decide to make their regular camping trip into a climbing expedition. Despite running into a park ranger who warns them not to go into the mountains and a man babbling about something murderous in the nearby woods, the go ahead and set up camp anyway. Unfortunately, the land is being lived on by a murderous family who don’t take kindly to strangers on what they consider to be their land.
Jeff Lieberman’s first theatrical outing of the 1980s is, for me, a bit of a mixed bag, although it’s apparently his own favourite of his movies. The movie starts with an interesting sequence where a couple of hunters stumble across an old abandoned church, ending with one of them dead and the killers acquiring distinctive items of clothing from them. This is a motif used throughout the movie, where the killers gradually acquire items from those they kill, leading to an interesting shot where one character is murdered while another of the killer family used a stolen camera through a hole in a window.
From there, it’s mostly pretty straightforward for much of the movie. We are introduced to the usual group of young people – the jock, the slut, the nerd, etc. For once, they do actually have a real reason to go to and stay in that particular part of the wilderness, with one character having inherited a plot of land there. This leads to an interesting sequence where the killer family can argue quite equally that the land is theirs because they are not subject to laws of the outside world, and the land claimed by that character is more theirs than his.
We are also introduced to George Kennedy as the local park ranger, a fairly stock character for “name” actors in many of the slasher movies of the day. From there, the characters get a feeling that something is watching them in the woods, gradually getting closer and finally murdered one by one.
I only recently managed to watch this movie so, if I’m fair, that probably has a lot to do with why I was apparently more underwhelmed than many people. There are certainly a lot of interesting camera angles, some imaginative sequences surrounding the deaths and some great compositions. The acting’s not bad, Brad Fiedel’s pre-[cbc:+usa:+ca]Terminator[/cbc][cbc:-usa:-ca]Terminator[/cbc] score is good enough and the whole thing does move quite quickly. Yet, you can’t help thinking of many other movies while viewing it. Lieberman himself has cited Deliverance as a major influence but there’s also parallels to many others from [cbc:+usa:+ca]The Hills Have Eyes[/cbc][cbc:-usa:-ca]The Hills Have Eyes[/cbc] (while Lieberman claims not to have seen before shooting this) to [cbc:+usa:+ca]Wrong Turn[/cbc][cbc:-usa:-ca]Wrong Turn[/cbc]. For the seasoned genre fan like myself coming to the movie for the first time, this probably lessened the impact. Less jaded viewers should have a great time, though.
Just Before Dawn was slightly censored for the UK video release, but is now essentially unscathed. However, there are several distinctly different versions available. Interestingly, the UK DVD from Odeon Entertainment is the most complete, although the video quality is apparently quite bad. It contains a number of dialogue and other small scenes not available elsewhere. The ShriekShow region 1 DVD is better quality, missing these scenes but otherwise uncut compared to previous releases that had been considered complete.
[/cbc][cbc:-usa:-ca]Region 1 ShriekShow release
[amazon-product]B0009G3BW4[/amazon-product]Region 2 Odeon release