Deep in the woods somewhere up in the mountains, two intoxicated deer hunters stumble upon an abandoned church and head inside to explore. And while the elder Ty (Kellin) takes to the pulpit, Vachel listens intently to his mock sermon from the pews until the faux preacher spots someone spying on them through a gaping hole in the roof. Then, when he heads outside to investigate, Ty sees their empty truck careening down the incline until it smashes into a tree and explodes. Back inside the church, Vachel hears the commotion too late and is surprised by a ginormous mountain man, whose vocalizations make him sound like rutting pig, who then stabs the stunned hunter right through the crotch with a machete. And after witnessing this atrocity, a terrified Ty flees down the mountain on foot.
Meanwhile, a group of five young adult friends are headed up the very same mountain on a camping expedition to an area of land recently inherited by Warren (Henry), the leader of the group, which is rounded out by his girlfriend, Constance (Benson), their friend, Jonathan (Lemon), his girl, Megan (Rose), and Jonathan’s shutterbug little brother, Daniel (Seymour). (And it should be noted that only Warren appears to have any kind of camping experience.) With all of them packed in Warren’s Winnebago, with Blondie jamming on the radio, this trip has already been fraught with peril as they’ve been nearly run off the road twice; once by a deer, the second by a fraught Ty, who is so overcome by shock his incoherent babbling about a murderous demon loose in the hills, along with his breath, and the half-empty bottle in his hand, gets him quickly written off as a raving drunk and left by the wayside.
Further up the road, their winding route also takes them past the ranger station, whose sole occupant, ranger Roy McLean (Kennedy), also urges these campers to turn around, saying the area they’re headed to is dangerous, deed of ownership or not. But Warren and the others cannot be dissuaded; and when McLean asks which campsite they’re headed for specifically so he can fill out their impending missing persons reports properly, Jonathan jumps in and gives him a bum answer so the ranger won’t come poking around and bother them.
Thus and so, the stage for wholesale slaughter is set: as no one knows where they’re going, and there’s a mutant murderer running loose in the hills -- who knows exactly where they are because he’s hitched a ride on top of their vehicle with no one noticing. (Wow. Camping in the woods is fun.) And after the group abandons the Winnebago and head further into the forest on foot before making camp, no one should be all that surprised, then, when strange things start occurring, beginning with some spooky noises coming from the woods -- but this just turns out to be the merry prankster Jonathan, with an assist from Warren, playing another joke. And while the rest of the night goes by without incident, the following morning’s hangover hike is derailed a bit by the sounds of a girl singing, which is traced to a skittish waif near a waterfall, who quickly melts into the trees.
From there, the group splits up, with Megan and Jonathan going skinny-dipping in the pool at the bottom of a waterfall while the others go exploring. Unbeknownst to them, however, the hulking killer is watching them and lurking behind the cascade before he disappears into the water. Thus, unaware that someone else has joined them for a swim, Megan feels someone grabbing for her but figures it’s just Jonathan screwing around again -- until she sees him on shore already, panics, and scrambles for the beach and her boyfriend’s waiting arms, who figures a friendly fish gave her a nudge.
Elsewhere, Warren and Connie are having “the talk.” Seems Warren is still apologizing for last night’s prank that frightened her so badly and for ignoring both her intuition that someone is watching them and her pleas to go back and tell the ranger where they really are in case something does happen; because if last night was any indication, she admits she’d be pretty worthless if something did go wrong.
The following morning, Connie, rightfully freaked out, once again asks if they all should just pack up and leave but gets the same standard answer from Warren, saying these hillbillies are religious kooks and relatively harmless. But things take a sinister turn when Megan announces someone stole her make-up bag while they slept and sends Jonathan out to find the racoon who swiped it. Well, turns out it was the mountain girl who horked it and tried to make herself look like the other girls. Seems she watched them skinny dipping and has become smitten with Jonathan, who doesn’t necessarily stop her flirtation. He gets her name, Merry Cat Logan (Powell), but when she tries to steal a kiss, his surprised reaction scares her off. But Jonathan chases the girl back to the gorge and the rope bridge they used to cross it to get to their campsite. Merry Cat tries to use it but is suddenly scared off by something on the other side.
Not realizing this, Jonathan thinks she’s just scared of the bridge and thinks a practical demonstration is in order. And he almost makes it across the perilous gap before realizing his path is now blocked by the killer (Hunsaker), who takes a whack at him with that machete, hitting his target in a defensively raised hand. And as a bloodied Jonathan turns and scrambles back across the unstable web, the killer chops up the ropes, severing the bridge, plunging him into the water below just a few yards from another deadly waterfall. But Jonathan manages to snare the rope still secured to the other side, manages to pull himself out of the water, and then climbs to apparent safety. Now, I say apparent safety because just as the Jonathan reaches the ledge, either the killer somehow got across in the interim, who kicks his victim in the face, sending him back down into the water where he is swept away and over the deadly falls, or we are dealing with more than one killer here. And the rest of the campers best get to the bottom of that mathematical mystery if any of them hope to survive to see the sun rise tomorrow...
An unsung name when it came to producing genre pictures in the 1970s, all producer David Sheldon really wanted to do was direct movies. And yet his first job in Hollywood was working for Lawrence Gordon at American International Pictures, serving as a director of development, where he had his fingers in a ton of pictures in some capacity, especially their blaxploitation efforts like Slaughter (1972), Blacula (1972) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973). (Seriously, check out his IMDB credits and then boggle like I did.) Sheldon had also written a first draft script vehicle for Pam Grier at the behest of his boss, Sam Arkoff, but this was shelved when Jack Hill got involved and wrote his own script for Coffy (1973), which was a big hit for AIP.
Meanwhile, Sheldon was also kind of moonlighting as a line producer for Kentucky based filmmaker, William Girdler, who had brought his first feature, 3 on a Meathook (1972), to AIP looking for a distributor. And while the studio rejected the picture, the two hit it off and Sheldon formed a partnership with Girdler’s Mid-America Pictures, where the initial plan was to split directing duties on a series of films, including The Zebra Killer (1974), Abby (1974), and Sheba, Baby (1975), where Sheldon dusted off his unused Grier script and finagled a co-production with AIP. But this partnership kinda fell apart from there as it quickly became clear Sheldon would never be unable to remove Girdler from the director’s chair. Still, Sheldon continued to produce pictures for him, including Grizzly (1976) and The Manitou (1977), until the director’s untimely death. After that, Sheldon formed his own independent production company, co-producing several more pictures for AIP like Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976) and Rolling Thunder (1977).
And Sheldon was still independently producing films at the dawn of the 1980s, working with Doro V. Hreljanovic, a native Czechoslovakian, who financed a variety of films ranging from Moonshine County Express (1977), to Bill Grefé’s Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976), and a couple of Alfonso Brescia’s Italian Star Wars knock-offs, War of the Planets (1977) and Battle of the Stars (1978), when a script for something called The Tennessee Mountain Murders crossed his desk. Based on an idea by Joseph Middleton and then fleshed out by Mark Arywitz, both hoping to cash-in on the current slasher film boom, it told the tale of group of teenagers lost in the woods who run afoul and are bumped off by pair of inbred twins. The original script, whose title was switched to The Last Ritual at some point, also had a lot of religious themes and overtones as this was all a backwoods conspiracy and a family affair as the final girl had to pass a snake-handling ritual for the climax; and if she failed, she died; and if she won, well, she would have to marry one of those twins. Thus, the script was a bit of a mess but Sheldon and Hreljanovic obviously saw something they liked; and so, they brought in Jeff Lieberman to try and salvage it.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lieberman is another one of those guys with a small but solid oeuvre in genre films -- in fact, they’re so solid, quirky and distinctively creative it’s always puzzled me as to why the guy wasn’t in demand to make more of them. His first screen credit was for co-scripting the gritty police thriller, Blade (1973), for his mentor, Ernest Pintoff. From there, Lieberman would write and direct the nature’s revenge classic, Squirm (1976), for AIP, where I assume he first crossed paths with Sheldon. Lieberman then followed up his killer-earthworm picture with Blue Sunshine (1977), a trippy tale where a bunch of ex-hippies have some bad and homicide-inducing LSD flashbacks. And when Sheldon gave him the script for The Last Ritual, Lieberman felt it was just awful and embarked on a total overhaul.
Less inspired by Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham, Lieberman instead cites Ingmar Bergman and, especially, John Boorman as the biggest influences on what was to become Just Before Dawn (1981). Apparently, one of Lieberman’s favorite films of all time was Boorman’s adaptation of Deliverance (1972), whose themes of consequences for straying off the beaten path, alpha predators, and role reversals, he grafted into a brand new script; most notably with the character of Constance/Connie, our eventual final girl, who would serve as our John Voight surrogate, meaning someone who was essentially mild-mannered and decent and a bit of a milquetoast being pushed into doing horrible things to survive. There’s also some less than subtle nods to the urban revulsion of rural areas, alluding to inbreeding of backwoods folk as the group travels deeper into the forest, commenting on the number of deformed twins encountered. (All that was missing was some banjo music.) Writing under the pseudonym of Gregg Irving, Lieberman also tore out most of the religious stuff, removed a couple of characters, and redid most of the kills to make his film more of a conventional thriller instead of a slasher and yet still keep the high body count to appease his producers.
Thus, technically, Just Before Dawn really isn’t a slasher movie even though it sure does feel like one, especially when considering the setup and familiar characters. Moving the action from the Tennessee Ozarks to the Cascades of Oregon, specifically Silver Falls State Park just outside of Salem, both cast and crew had to rough it during filming. (Lieberman coined the phrase “Pee where you be” during the overnight shoots.) Also of note, Mt. St. Helens erupted during filming (1980), and while hundreds of miles away, the plume was still visible from where they were filming.
There’s also a few masterful suspense set-pieces that are executed quite brilliantly, especially the scene of the killer appearing in the waterfall and submerging in the same frame as a couple too busy kissing to notice what’s going on around them.
And speaking of not paying proper attention, while Jonathan was fighting for his life at the gorge, he blew his safety whistle to signal for help. Alas, while those back in the camp heard this, they all just write it off as their friend screwing around again and ignore it. Daniel, meanwhile, heads off to take some photos with Megan, stumbling upon a cemetery and that old church Ty had found earlier.
Elsewhere, Warren and Connie are in the river, trying to catch some dinner by hand -- not realizing the body of their friend is rushing right toward them until it plows right into them! Back at the church, Daniel and Megan are messing around in the cemetery taking photos. They hear someone circling in the woods but again assume it’s just Jonathon, which proves dead wrong as Daniel winds up run-through with the machete while Megan confirms we are dealing with a pair of mutant killer twins as she seeks shelter in the church, which proves no haven at all.
At the campsite, a distraught Warren and Connie find no one around. Realizing Jonathan was the last to have the keys to the RV, Warren says to stay put in case the others come back while he returns to the body to fetch them -- only the body isn’t where he left it. Meantime, Connie is attacked and tormented by one of the hillbilly twins, who blows Jonathan’s pilfered whistle in her ear, smacks her on the rump with the machete as he herds her around, before running her up a tree. (Some improvisations conspired by Lieberman and Hunsaker on the spot and used on an unwitting Benson, of which she was none too happy about.)
But this refuge would prove only temporary as the killer slowly chops it down. And once it crashes to the ground, he grabs the stunned girl and goes for the kill. But then a shot rings out and the killer falls dead. It’s Ranger Mclean, whose been out looking for them ever since Ty stumbled into his station and told his tale of terror a couple reels back. He then came upon Merry Cat in his search, who led him to the campsite before running off again again. Here, we also learn the squicky details of the Logan’s twisted family tree and Merry Cat’s sister mom. The twins are also her brothers, but she has no love for them and is tired of her father allowing their murderous malfeasance.
And not realizing there is more than one killer, Mclean tells a returning Warren to help the girl, pack up their things, and he’ll escort them out of the area. Told a couple of their friends are still unaccounted for, Mclean tells them to stay put and he’ll go look for them. Convinced Daniel and Megan are dead, Connie watches as Warren breaks down a bit, not wanting to admit he got all of his friends killed by leading them out here. Thus, Lieberman’s Deliverance riff comes full circle as Warren, the Burt Reynolds stand-in, is already rendered to a state of ineffectiveness even before the other twin barges in and takes a chunk out him with the machete. Thus, it is up to Connie, decked out in her Maybelline warpaint, to step up and save the day as she leaps into the fray.
It was Lieberman who concocted the killer’s ignominious death at the end of Just Before Dawn, where Connie, obviously over-matched, and on the verge of being crushed to death, manages to ram her fist into the killer’s mouth. The director wanted the final death to be something he had never seen before in a movie and what he came up with was definitely unique and it was pulled off by using a prosthetic over-sized mouth placed on John Hunsaker while Lieberman's wife, standing in for Deborah Benson, shoved her fist into this gaping maw.
And in the film, our ersatz final girl gets her arm into this oral cavity up to her elbow before the stunned behemoth falls and asphyxiates on it, leaving a triumphant Connie as the last person standing just as dawn breaks, the end credits roll, and Brad Fiedel’s eerie electronic score plays us out.
And that’s another thing that really shouldn’t fit into this kind of movie but does. Fiedel’s score, I mean. It’s strangely ethereal with modified vocals meshing into a synthesized buzz whose menacing drone really impends the dread. And while working with Lieberman, there are scenes where there should be music but there isn’t; and others where there shouldn’t be and there is as the film brilliantly uses amplified ambient noises -- the sound of rushing water, the cessation of insect chatter, even the silence of the trees, to great effect instead of the usual musical stings; though apparently someone up the chain feared the audience wouldn’t get it and added a few of those screamtrack moments just in case. And then there’s the constant play of the melancholy whistling, which Fielder claimed was mimicking Jonathan’s safety whistle but could also be read as wildlife or a form of birdcall communication between the two killers. And when you put it all together, you wind up with this glorious, Tangerine Dream-like thrum that will keep you on edge through the whole film. And Fiedel would go on to do a similar pulsating score for James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984).
According to Lieberman in the making of doc on Shriek Show’s Just Before Dawn DVD, the film was almost picked up by Universal Pictures for release when it was finished. Unfortunately, business issues with the executive producers prevented it from happening. The film did see a limited release through Picturemedia, which might explain why it remains a bit of an obscurity. Which is too bad, as this is one of the more competently directed and best acted body count movies of the 1980s, with great performances by Benson, Hunsaker, Greg Henry, Chris Lemon and the rest of the cast -- (which also almost included Michelle Pfeiffer, Daryl Hannah, and Richard Kiel as the killer twins). It’s rare when you don’t want to see anyone get killed in this type of movie but here ya go. And together with Lieberman’s steady hand behind the camera, and Fiedel’s score pulsing in your ears, the suspense in this thing is truly palpable. And that’s why I think Just Before Dawn belongs in the same breath as Deliverance, Southern Comfort (1981) and Rituals (1977) as apex examples of backwoods horror, murder and mayhem.
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Just Before Dawn (1981) Oakland Productions :: Picturmedia / EP: Doro Vlado Hreljanovic, V. Paul Hreljanovic / P: David Sheldon / AP: Jonas Middleton / D: Jeff Lieberman / W: Jonas Middleton, Mark Arywitz, Jeff Lieberman / C: Dean King, Joel King / E: Robert Q. Lovett / M: Brad Fiedel / S: Deborah Benson, Gregg Henry, Chris Lemmon, Jamie Rose, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell, John Hunsaker, Mike Kellin, George Kennedy