Just Before Dawn (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #115


Number of Views: Three
Release Date: October 14, 1981 (US)
Sub-Genre: Survival Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 90 minutes
Also Known As: Survivance (France)
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Producer: Doro Vlado Hreljanovic, David Sheldon
Screenplay: Mark Arywitz, Jeff Lieberman
Make-up Effects: Matthew W Mungle
Special Effects: John Morello, Danny Lester, Richard E Johnson (Consultant)
Cinematography: Dean King, Joel King
Score: Brad Fiedel
Editing: Robert Q Lovett
Studio: Oakland Productions
Distributors: Picturmedia (US), Juniper Releasing (US re-release), Paragon Video Productions (US VHS), Code Red DVD (US DVD unedited)
Stars: George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell, Charles Bartlett, Jamie Rose, Hap Oslund, Barbara Spencer and John Hunsaker as the Mountain Twins


Suggested Audio Candy:

Brad Fiedel Just Before Dawn


One name which isn’t mentioned enough when speaking of great slasher flicks from the past is that of Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn. His 1981 entry was put in the shade by other more trendy alternatives and it wasn’t until its release on video that it finally found its clique. In truth it owed more to John Boorman’s 1972 backwoods bully fest Deliverance than any of the slew of stalk and slash numbers doing their rounds at the time and indeed Lieberman cites Boorman’s classic as his main inspirations when coming up with the concept with Mark Arywitz.


There was a foreboding nature; the lush cinematography captured the sheer extent and splendor of the surrounding woodlands, whilst somehow feeling insular and intimidating. It is interesting that Lieberman regards this to be one of his personal darlings from his distinguished career but it is a view pooled with Keeper. So many of its rivals were only concerned with bloated body counts and progressively more visceral dispatches. His film traversed a different trail entirely, a mountainside pathway with only an intimate number of hapless backpackers taking the jaunt.


It moved at a leisurely pace, the quality of the acting chops on offer allowed for that. These protagonists were afforded ample time to endear themselves; while still sticking to the archetypes we were all familiar with. There was a self-fitness addict, his bashful belle, the seminal fluid over spilling live-wire buddy and supplementary trophy hell cat harpy, along with dorky cameraman cum factotum. All boxes ticked, but what awaited the trekkers within the leafy expanses before them?


Something truly horrendous; Lieberman and Arywitz fashioned the most unpleasant boorish muted butchers, overbearing and lacking in any form of empathy, they could, on initial exposure, appear to be taking out the trash and in some ways that was their objective. I fondly recall that VHS sleeve with one of these bruisers standing imposingly, machete dangling from his right hand. Once you flipped the case over there was an equally enticing shot of one poor camper being trampled from a cliff edge. Flawlessly marketed to our innermost curiosities, it is no wonder it accumulated such a staunch following on video.


About that kill; there was absolutely no requisite for grue here, Dean and Joel King’s luscious photography had ensured we knew the magnitude of the drop before our luckless victim. As he tumbled into the rough and rigid rapids below, I admit openly to feeling that sense of falling abruptly with him. The fact that the cast was of an upright standard and the languorous pacing only served to amplify the brunt when the trash-men came to bludgeoning their refuse. Intriguingly both characters were played by the same actor, John Hunsaker.


This was far more of a film than a movie; much more thoughtful than the sub-par drivel beginning its unrelenting assault on the marketplace. There can be few more suitable examples of this point than George Kennedy. The Robin to the sadly missed Leslie Nielsen’s blundering Batman was also a very reputable rounded auteur, and no alien to the genre. He had been top of the bill in Alvin Rakoff’s moody Death Ship and his name was pretty much a stamp of authenticity for any feature around that time.


Here he was contented just to roll up his strides, bask in the sun-drenched rays and allow the group to pay no heed of his well-grounded pleas to turn back and venture no further forward. Our forest ranger was far less crazy than Ralph and gave sound advice but if they’d taken it we would have been left with an admittedly sumptuous 90 minute flora and fauna documentary so Lieberman had to play by the rule set. I’ve mentioned the pace and indeed it could be accused of meandering but this would be harsh as the encompassing components were all more than strong enough to hold your attention through any potential lulls.


When things did get ugly it was akin to being booted in the torso by a filthy-great size 13 and we were left gasping for oxygen like crabby kestrel Mary Whitehouse in a burlesque bar (Keeper wagers that she frequented these establishments on her rest days). As for the saucy little slut of the piece, she understandably didn’t take too long before sliding those scanty draws down to her ankles and unfastening her bosom hammock for a nice nubile saunter in the swim, for which we were more than grateful provided duel rationales. Uno – there was a sizzling sopping succubus paddling for our intimate gratification and dos – the instance where she felt her pins being caressed sub aqua and assumed it was her lover, only to see him drying off at the side of the lake, was marvelously unsettling and our beautiful vista became once more a place of disconcertment and alarm.


One very poignant disparity between Just Before Dawn and so many of its contemporaries was that so much of what transpired was during daylight hours. Traditionally this is a less foreboding time-frame for creating an ominous feel but once again this was testament to the opulent Cinematography but also the atmospheric score and assured direction which intensified the mood, along with our demented trash pickers of course.


Keeper prefers not to label this a slasher, it’s a motion picture focusing on survival against a gorgeous backdrop which turned against you and give that sense of seclusion so necessary in creating dread. I implore you to seek it out; it may not have been the trendiest or most forthcoming of features from its year, but it is undoubtedly one which you should have the wherewithal to explore further. If it’s a tense, taut and well-crafted top-to-bottom ninety minutes you crave, then look no further than the majesty of Lieberman’s personal highlight.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Rating: 2/5


For the Grue-Guzzlers: The fact that he sidestepped exploitation signals Lieberman’s intent to create a differing kind of distress. Never overly visceral, it remains mean-spirited and unremittingly claustrophobic.


Keeper of the Crimson Quill

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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013


Second Cut

by Silent Shadow

As soon as I started watching I notice two things. The first being the backdrop. I’ll talk about that a little later. The second was myself. Within moments I was back to my younger and slightly naive self. I felt like I was back in the day when I was watching all the horror movies under the sun from Friday the 13th, The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance etc. The backdrop for me was the main character. Unlike the cast of the film the setting was able to deliver multiple performances. In the light of day we are given adventure, beauty and stunning views. Luscious green as far as the eye can see. Waterfalls with a mystic feel, and valleys that sweep on for miles. Then the flick of the coin. The sun goes down, and the paradise that once was becomes a living hell. Having said that you will notice that a lot of the killing does take place in the daylight. The feeling of being safe soon washes downstream.

As Keeper mentioned. The two twins are played by the same dude. The twins themselves have an unwelcoming feel. Even the Shadow would not like to cross these two, but on watching them you never really feel out of your depth. I think it’s fair to say that our happy campers never really test the brothers and for this reason you are left feeling a little empty and wanting more. It would have been nice to have a little more screen time with the jolly twins. Just Before Dawn plays out well, and fits the time it was made, but in my opinion has suffered over the years. Unless you are a fan of the genre and can respect your roots you may find this hard to sit through. For myself I can see the passion behind the camera and I love the style, setting and the gritty feel of the early 80’s.

Silent Shadow’s Judgement 7/10


Silent Shadow


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