Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Just Before Dawn (1981)

A quintet of friends (including characters played by Gregg Henry, Barbara Benson and Jamie Rose) go on a merry camping trip to a heavily wooded mountain for camping and a bit of climbing. As always (or we’d have a particularly boring film to get through), things don’t go well right from the start. First, the local forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy) attempts to warn our protagonists off completely and annoys them – city folk that they are - so much they lie to him about the location they are going to camp out at, a decision that’ll certainly not bite them in the ass, no sir. Then, on their way up the mountain, they encounter an older guy who is clearly in shock.

The audience knows the man’s nephew has been murdered by a large man with a peculiarly creepy giggle, but when our protagonists hear him talking about his cousin having been murdered by a demon, they decide to leave a man who is clearly in distress, with a visible head wound, out on a mountain road to fend for himself because taking him back down the mountain to the ranger would inconvenience them.

Consequently, when said large giggler starts stalking our protagonists’ campsite and killing them off, one can’t help but think they rather get what they had coming.

Backwoods slasher Just Before Dawn is probably the highpoint of director Jeff Lieberman’s small but interesting filmography. It is pretty much the perfect backwoods slasher, full of scenes that sell the area the plot takes place in as an actual wilderness, and once it has gotten going also going from one highly effective suspense scene to the next. Even the film’s sillier moments work surprisingly well, for Lieberman stages them in the most serious manner. These scenes in particular also manage to be creepy in a way only things which are in tune with very basic human fears can be: what if that blurry shadow you see coming isn’t your friend? What if the hand grabbing you from under water doesn’t belong to whom you think it belongs to? The way the film plays these scenes, there’s surprisingly little silly about them.

Additionally Just Before Dawn is making clever little changes to the – by 1981 already codified – rules of slasher and backwoods horror. Character types, for example, are generally in keeping with the tradition but Lieberman is adding something to everyone that goes against the usual grain, leaving us with a cast of victims we don’t necessarily want to see die, even though the whole business with the poor old guy doesn’t exactly make them more likeable. And when it comes to the rules of backwoods horror and its ideas about survival instincts and what they do to people, I have never seen them turned into action quite the way Just Before Dawn’s astonishing final scene does (after the film has already vigorously defecated on the concept of machismo a bit earlier), and I have certainly never seen a killer dispatched by the final girl in any to comparable way to what happens here

Add to all this George Kennedy grumbling through the scenery from time to time – when he isn’t talking to his plants – some of the worst backwoods people dialogue I’ve heard in my life, and you have yourself the sort of film whose weaknesses are just as winning as its copious strengths.

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