Director – Jeff Lieberman
Cast – Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, George Kennedy, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell, John Hunsaker, Charles Bartlett, Jamie Rose, Hap Oslund, Barbara Spencer
Release Year – 1981
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Just Before Dawn is a film that came across my way while searching for lesser-known slasher flicks, and I am pleased to say that Just Before Dawn was very pleasing to me, and not-so-pleased to say that it is far more deserving than the minimal attention it has been given. From the man behind Squirm and Satan’s Little Helper, Joe Lieberman’s backwoods slasher effort delivers good horror, great deaths, and an overall experience sure to give slasher fans what they are looking for.
Five campers set out to enjoy the mountains and explore a piece of land purchased by one of them, and despite the pleading of the park ranger to stay off the mountain they set up camp with plans of boozing, skinny-dipping, and sexual deviancy. Soon after their arrival the campers begin to go missing one by one, and soon enough the young adults realize that they have stumbled upon the stalking ground of a beastly killer who has no plans of letting them leave in one piece.
The first film I ever saw from Joe Lieberman was Squirm, and given I was a youngster it scared the crap out of me, and I now wish that I would have seen Just Before Dawn as a youngster because it would have scared even more crap out of me. I am a big fan of “backwoods slasher” flicks, so naturally the film’s storyline had me interested, especially because I spend a good amount of time in the woods every year and can relate to how lonesome you really are out there. The majority of the plot is the usual run-of-the-mill backwoods slasher story, with the usual horny protagonists failing to heed warnings from local folks and soon finding themselves running from a savage killer, and despite the cliches I have never found myself tired of these storylines. The usage of the killer was awesome, and each of the deaths came well-paced and of heinous nature. We do not get a whole lot of information regarding why our killer is the way that he is, but there is a positive twist thrown in towards the end that should shed some light on his behavior, as well as another twist around the middle of the film that really got things shaken up. The final sequence of the film was about as perfect as it could get, and included great character play between our last two protagonists, as well as a death I had yet to ever see used in the genre, something that Lieberman specifically wrote in for the film given its originality. For a film coming off as a typical backwoods slasher effort I was surprised at how unique the storyline was, something that I can always appreciate regarding the slasher sub-genre.
Joe Lieberman did a great job with his direction, setting up awesome scenery that at times had me captivated over how beautiful, awesome, and then dangerous it must have been to film there. He takes full advantage of the mountain-esque location’s deadly waterfall, giving us some good tension without the essence of horror, which later was used again but with the essence of horror…and with great results. We get the usual performances from our naïve protagonists, but the real star of the film is our killer, who had his own unique look to him and delivered great memorable kills. What really surprised me were his mannerisms and the noises he would make, noises that were truly chilling and made this killer a memorable one for me. The gore is good and Lieberman graciously took a full-frontal approach in filming it, and the heinous nature of the kills only made the gore all-the-more enjoyable.
Overall, Just Before Dawn is a great backwood slasher film that delivers a good story, great gore/kills, and positive overall direction/execution from Joe Lieberman. The film has its faults, but all they do is keep this film from being an extraordinary watch and did little to make this anything short of enjoyable for slasher fans. This is truly and under-appreciated film that was looked over when it debuted, and I highly suggest you give this one a watch if you enjoy such flicks.