Night #23: Just Before Dawn (1981)


Directed By: Jonathan Lieberman

I picked this up at random after looking at the They Shoot Zombies Don’t They? list on Letterboxd. The setup seems simple enough but the blurb promised “a twist” at the midpoint. Naturally, I’m easily suckered in so I went for it.

After a perfunctory opening – where a dude gets stabbed in the dick – we meet a van full of teens who are heading up to a place in the mountains for some climbing and generally being recreational. Along the way, they meet a plant-talking George Kennedy and a survivor of the opening scene, who babbles incoherently about seeing a Demon. He’s a big old drunk though so like Crazy Ralph in the Friday The 13th flicks, they all ignore him. It’s kinda funny because if the guy had said there’s a man out there with a machete and he just killed my friend then we would have no movie to speak of.

After a turgid few ‘getting to know you’ scenes we stray into a mix of DeliverenceThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre and any slasher you claim to think of. I have to feel that the set up for this influenced The Cabin In The Woods being that they feel so similar. I had assumed the influence was one of the Friday The 13th sequels but maybe this was it. Without really giving too much away, although I’m definitely about it, is that this was most definitely an influence on Wrong Turn and the 12 sequels they made to it. Anyway despite what I thought there is no cabin to go to, just general outdoorsiness where the group is being stalked by our killer.

It seems to take a long time to get going and worse of all is that there’s no twist really, not unless you call the plot unfolding a ‘twist’. Even by 1981, the backwards folk in the mountain trope was pretty well-founded. Off the top of my head you’d have Deliverence, Southern Comfort, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I’m sure plenty of others that I don’t know about.

This probably has more in common with the first two movies I named than its contemporaries. The opening kill scene feels like it came from a different movie or was added after because that the movie doesn’t feel that violent again. Two of the kills are offscreen for a start, and there’s only 5 of them to start with.

I generally liked the characters too, though they’re pretty much all archetypes. They fail to tell the sheriff at the start exactly where they’ve gone and admit soon after that it was a shitty thing to do. When things go south those characters who are left genuinely realise the gravity of their situation. But aside from a few nicely done moments (One character is searching for another at night with a gas lamp and when we see him swing it in the darkness his dead friend is briefly illuminated in the background. Of course, the movie spoils that soon enough when it has him find his friend anyway) the movie just isn’t all that interesting.

Ok so we have the always welcome presence of George Kennedy to liven things up but like Hal Holbrook in Girl’s Nite Out it’s a case too little. Not even too little too late, just too little. And the villains themselves are nothing to write home about. They’re just oversized men with what I presume to be ‘inbred’ makeup applied. They don’t have any physical deformities to speak of, they’re just a bit ugly, and so they have some grey dust on their head and call it a day. Honestly, I’m not exaggerating. Perhaps it was just the quality of the version I watched, but they looked closer to the zombies from Dawn Of The Dead than real people.

It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. There’s some nice inversion of gender roles as when we get down to our final man and woman it’s her who’s a lot more physical and him who is losing it. There’s a special shoutout to her though because without a doubt she performs the best kill in near enough any horror flick when she pushes her hand down the throat of one of the killers until he’s dead. Do you know how badass you have to be to push your arm into someone’s throat and keep it there until they’re dead?

The gender trade isn’t really enough to salvage this as the movie doesn’t really commit to it until the last half hour. There are some nice scenes and there’s something dreamlike about watching these characters navigate their way through the wilderness, but it’s a little too unsure of what it wants to be. Perhaps I was in the wrong frame of mind as I’ve read a number of reviews praising this so I’m sure one day I’ll come back to it knowing what it actually is, but until then I’ll consider it my second lesson in picking up things from a list.



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