JUST BEFORE DAWN
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Year of release: 1981
Country of origin: USA
Running time: 91 to 102 minutes depending on the cut.
DVD/Blu ray: Both
Tagline: "The nightmare has begun".
Casting the spotlight on the slasher genre
Story: High up in the mountains of the Oregon wilderness two hunters encounter a huge hillbilly type figure who attacks and kills one of the pair. The other manages to slip away and makes his way down the mountain. Meanwhile we meet five young people who are visiting the area in a motorhome to check out some property that one of the number has recently inherited. They encounter a forest ranger who warns them it is not a good idea to carry on any further regardless of any property they may be able to lay claim to. Ignoring the man they carry on and soon run across the surviving hunter who is making his way down the mountain. He has been drinking and is babbling incoherently about devils and murder. Dismissing him as a harmless wino they carry on deeper into the wild abandoning the motorhome soon after to hike the last part of the journey and camp out under the stars. This proves to be a bad idea as they soon enter the territory of the hillbilly killer who marks them as his latest prey. Alerted by the drunk hunter that something is amiss and the kids could be in danger the forest ranger sets off after the kids on his horse in a rescue effort.
Good points: The film looks really pleasant with great visuals and cinematography of the stunning Oregon woodlands. There is a lovely looking waterfall on display and an eye catching couple of scenes involving a rope bridge high above a river. All in all everything looks very picturesque which makes for a good backdrop for the action.
The soundtrack is also very solid and is something that suits the film very well. It doesn't have a super memorable tune or theme like say for example Halloween but what the music and sound effects do do is compliment what we see on screen very well in addition to creating atmosphere. It is workman like without being too flashy. In particular I liked the animal birdcall type noise which was used quite often as this sounded very eerie.
On the whole the characters are all unoffending and a likeable enough bunch. Roy the ranger and property inheritor Warren being two good likeable examples. The real star of the show though is final girl Connie who goes through a bit of a transformation throughout the course of the film from quiet and a little dowdy early on to fierce and sexy come the end. Her method of dealing with the killer in the finale is also unique to say the least. As I say though all of the characters are likeable enough and there isn't anyone in particular that annoys and makes you wish them to die quicker as there sometimes is in the genre.
There were for me three really good scenes in this that stood above everything else. Firstly a very effective part where Megan is in the water frolicking with her boyfriend until something happens to turn this into quite a scary moment. There is also a good part where a character is caught in a precarious situation by the killer on a flimsy bridge and lastly an enjoyable death scene built around a character misplacing their glasses. These three moments were all very good.
Bad Points: I didn't like the look of the killer very much as although being a big heavy individual and thus physically imposing he didn't have any costume or mask which is almost always a turnoff for me. There are occasional exceptions where this kind of thing doesn't bother me but usually I find it less enjoyable and scary if no effort is made with the killers appearance which was the case here.
I'm not sure where the Ty character got the idea of devils being behind the death of his friend (or maybe his nephew)? I mean he clearly saw the man responsible a couple of times and the killer in no way resembled a devil. You could perhaps understand the old mountain man saying there were devils in the area after he shot the stereo as he was trying to scare them away while protecting his secret so to make out the area was haunted by demons would be one way of doing that. For Ty though his warning would have held more validity if he had just said a big fat bloke killed my friend. There was no need to mention devils as that just made him sound like a crackpot. So kind of lazy writing you could say as this line should only have been included if the killer was wearing a devil type mask similar to the one in say Devil's Night/Left for Dead. It also didn't make sense why Ty laughed like a loon when he saw the kids might be in trouble as they drove off. I guess it was done to make us question whether he was somehow in on it and a villain himself but it would have been better without that I think.
Gore is virtually non existent with the exception of maybe the first kill. It does make up for it a bit by being more interested in creating ambiance, atmosphere and a sense of isolation but a little blood never goes astray so a bit more would have helped.
A minor thing but I was a bit disappointed we never got to see the property itself that Warren had inherited. All through the movie I was looking forward to seeing it and I kind of had it in my mind that the grand finale would take place there once they finally reached it but sadly we never got to see it. I was really curious though to see what kind of place it would be so far from civilisation tucked away up in the mountains.
Verdict: I was originally thinking of giving this a seven as I was enjoying it but it didn't seem like anything too special but I did find it left an impression afterward. I found myself thinking of the film for a few days after seeing it, not any specific scenes as such but more just the location, mood and feel which does add up to a unique flavour. So with it lingering in my memory a little bit as it did I decided to be generous and upgrade the score to an eight. A word of warning though if watching the extended cut Code Red release which features an extra ten minutes or so as the picture quality is really poor. Worth checking out though if only once (the extended cut) for the bonus material.
Bodycount (contains major spoilers):
1) Vachel: Run through with a machete in the old church.
2) Jonathan: Kicked off the cliff as he tried to climb up . He then drowned in the river below.
3) Daniel: Stabbed with a machete as he kissed Megan for a joke.
4) Megan: Killed in the church, death off camera.
5) Hillbilly twin number 1: Shot by Roy.
6) Hillbilly twin number 2: Choked to death by Connie after she stuck her hand and part of her arm down his throat.