Just Before Dawn (1981)
JUST BEFORE DAWN
WRITERS: Screenplay by Mark Arywitz & Gregg Irving
Based on a story by Joseph Middleton
DIRECTOR: Jeff Lieberman
STARRING: Chris Lemmon as Jonathan
Gregg Henry as Warren
Deborah Benson as Constance
Ralph Seymour as Daniel
Mike Kellin as Ty
George Kennedy as Roy
Jamie Rose as Megan
Kati Powell as Merry Cat
Charles Bartlett as Vachel
John Hunsaker as Mountain Twins
QUICK CUT: It's just another friendly adventure of a group of friends traveling into the woods to check out some land Warren inherited, and along the way they meet a friendly hunter, and their neighbours!
Warren - The main guy of the group, who just inherited a bunch of land in the middle of nowhere. He's a cool guy, but he does not do well under pressure.
Connie - Warren's girlfriend, and she handles things a lot better. They're both experienced in hiking and rock climbing, and while she has a few moments early on where she has her confidence shaken, she eventually steps up.
Jonathan - The prankster of the group, and he loves sneaking off into the woods and making noises to scare people.
Megan - John's girlfriend, and she's vain, and always putting on her makeup, even in the middle of the woods, where the most she's gonna impress is the local trash pandas. But she never falls into that sort of mean girl trope. She's self centered, but never at the expense of being a good person.
Daniel - Warren's brother, a photographer, and kinda the fifth wheel, but no one treats him like it.
Roy - The local park ranger, who loves splicing plants, and his horse Agatha. He serves a bit of the harbinger role of the movie, and while none of his skills really play into the plot, he's a generally competent face of authority in the movie.
Ty - A hunter whose nephew is the first to die horribly. I'd say it drives him to drink, but the guy's already chugging Jack Daniels before the movie is even going.
The Logans - Ma and Pa are a bit religiousy, don't take kindly to tresspassers, or any random thing they feel offends god. And they have the means to deal with these transgressions. There's also their daughter Merry Cat, who is very innocent, and very backwoods homeschooled.
THE GUTS: Rise and shine, Triskcampers! The Summer of Slashers continues! Since we started with the wise warning of Don't Go in the Woods, and chose to completely ignore that, we still have some hiking to do with our next movie, so get up bright and early for JUST BEFORE DAWN!
We begin the latest stretch of our summer-long hike as the sun rises over the credits, with Vachel and Ty, a pair of hunters, goofing off drunkenly in an abandoned, rundown church.
Things are going well enough, until Uncle Ty sees someone peeking down at them from a hole in the roof, but it sure ain't god. And he may just be too drunk for it to be real.
Vachel shrugs it off as it just being silly drunken Ty again, and continues mucking about the church. Ty meanwhile heads outside to investigate and make sure he's not losing it.
He doesn't find anything outside, but his truck suddenly creeps along behind him, crashes into a tree, and bursts into flames. As one does.
Inside the church, Vachel finds our ceiling slasher, who giggles like he's just inhaled three balloons worth of helium, before ramming his machete straight through Vachel's balls.
The killer swipes some of Vachel's clothes, while Ty watches from afar. He runs off past his burning truck, but the killer saw him and follows him deeper into the movie.
Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, we meet our main characters driving along in their RV, unaware of the horrors they're going to be driving into. And this is giving me flashbacks to another piece of garbage cinema...
Oh, and one of the group takes some photographs of a pair of little girls, and wonders why there are so many twins in the area. This...this is actually a plot point. It's never *explained*, it's just acknowledged, and comes up later, but there it is.
Also, Jonathan has an emergency whistle that is also a plot point. Ahh, I love long drives through Exposition Forest.
The group's journey into the plot gets halted violently when they crash into a deer, and Warren gets out to make sure its okay
Elsewhere, we find Park Ranger George Kennedy doing some Frankensteining with some plants, to merge a bonsai with an oak. I guess.
He hears the RV coming, flags them down, and warns them that where they're heading, there's no campsites to be found, and the mountain is dangerous and full of shadows.
They won't be stopped though, because otherwise no movie, so he reluctantly lets them go. But not before asking where they're heading, so he can fill out the report when they never come back.
Jonathan says they're going up to Silver Lake, and as they drive off, Warren asks what's at Silver Lake, they're not going to Silver Lake! Johnny Come Dumbly responds that he lied so the ranger doesn't come along and ruin their fun in the woods.
Yes, good, lie to the ranger that could save your life if he knew where you are and could check up on you. Y'all deserve what's coming.
Daniel sees something, and has Warren stop the RV, so everyone can get out and stare into the woods for a very, very long time with nothing happening. It goes JUST long enough to be frustrating, and then Ty jumps out as they try to leave.
He tells the kids about being chased by demons, and how he needs to get out, so he may be drunk, but he's the sensible one of this group.
They're not about to take the creepy drunken guy with them, so leave Ty behind, but not his demons, as the ceiling slasher jumps onto the back of their RV.
After all this driving and setup, which actually works really well, they run out of road and have to stop the RV, and continue on foot. From one dead end, walking off to find their own dead ends, I suppose. And if they run into a house with a kid and his elephantine alien, I am outta here.
Once they find a spot to camp for the night, Warren and John head back to the RV to get the rest of their supplies. They don't make it back before dark, and the trio at the campfire start to get worried, until...the two pop out of the woods pranking them.
The next day, the group hears someone singing down at the base of a nearby waterfall, and hike their way down to her. They call out to her, but she runs off scared.
Our group shrugs as she disappears, and continue their hike to Warren's property, coming across a terrifying rope bridge across a canyon. The wilderness journey through beautiful scenery continues until they find another waterfall and a pond at the base of it, so Megan and Jonathan decide to go skinny dipping.
The other three decide to leave the lovebirds alone, and it's been far too long since something happened in this movie.
Something handily comes along as the ceiling slasher sneaks around in the background and enters the pond. Jonathan disappears to scare Megan some more, but she gets a real scare when something grabs her leg. She assumes it's the guy, but when she sees him standing on the shore...
On a side note, our killer sure can hold his breath.
The movie decides to wander back to Ranger Ed wondering where Frank Drebin is, and playing with his plants, when Ty shows up to tell him about his dead nephew, and the kids being in danger.
Speaking of the kids, tensions are high around the campfire thanks to all the pranks and supposed pranks, and not pranks. Megan remembers someone decided to lug their boom box out into the middle of the woods with them, and puts on some music so they can have a firepit dance party.
The happy fun times stop when a gunshot pierces the night shooting the radio, and the little singing girl and her parents creep out of the woods. Everyone is surprised to see everyone, and the father tells the kids to get off the land, they have no business here, do not bring your evil here, skadoot!
Skadoot is my new favourite word.
And just as suddenly as they appear, they back right off into the woods and disappear like Homer Simpson fading into a hedge.
I love that this family just pops up, tells them to skadoot, and immediately disappears. It is the weirdest thing I've seen in awhile.
The next day dawns, and Megan discovers she has lost some of her makeup, and asks Jonathan to go looking for it. Makeup. In the woods. Unless there's an Avon supply outlet around the big oak tree, I wouldn't even bother.
BUT, he goes off into the woods, so you know he dead. But he does find it, smeared on the face of Singing Girl. We also find out her dad is super religious, and would freak out if he knew they got naked in the lake. Like he's not already freaking out.
Today, the killers driven by religious offenses, or things they perceive as being against God, may have become an overused trope, but it very often works, because people can take those ideas and easily twist those to fit their personal psychopathy. It gives them some reasoning, and how they'd see themselves as good people for doing what they do.
Anyways, after a sudden kiss, Merry Cat runs off and Jonathan follows her back to the rope bridge. He tries crossing it, but Ceiling Slasher shows up and hacks the ropes out from under him, so he splashes to the water below, entangled in the ropes.
Back at the campsite, the group hears Johnny's emergency whistle, and just shrug it off. Yes, because if you bring a means to warn people of bad things happening miles in the middle of nowhere, you just ignore it.
Have I mentioned how much these people deserve what's coming?
Anyways, Johnny decides to stop waiting for help, and manages to climb all the way up the cliff face with the ropes. But in the most hilarious thing of the entire movie, Ceiling Slasher is already over there, and kicks the kid in the face RIGHT back into the river. Amazing.
Meanwhile, Daniel has wandered off to take photographs, finds the abandoned church, and before he can find Vachel's body or a gigantic pool of blood, Megan shows up looking for Jonathan and the raccoons with her makeup.
Back at the river, Warren and Connie are just chilling and waiting for everyone to come back, and the first to arrive is Jonathan! Well, Jonathan's body that is, as it comes crashing down the river's rapids and falls.
His body falling into view behind the couple may just top his being booted back down the cliff. "He probably fell off the rope bridge." Oh, oh how right you are...
Back at the church, Dan and Megan think Jonathan is lurking in the woods when they see his jacket in the trees, so Megan decides to make him jealous in response to all his mean pranks.
Dan watches as the killer creeps right up on top of them, thinking he's making Jonathan mad, but thanks to not having his glasses, he can't see it's really our killer.
The guy gets right on top of them and when Daniel realises his mistake, it's too late as a machete is run into his gut.
Megan runs into the church and watches as the killer wanders around with Dan's camera, and then things get even worse as another body enters behind her, and OH NO IT'S TWINS!
I love that twist, as it suddenly heightens the danger, and I also love that the mountain twins keep picking up and wearing articles of clothing from their victims, almost aping their personalities. I only wish they had kept going, because watching them try and stalk around in Megan's outfit would've been hilariously awesome. Also, *actually set up*, in that they mention there's lots of twins in this area.
Meanwhile, Warren and Connie have gone wandering to try and find the others, and stumble upon the Logans' cabin. Pa Logan appears and once again tells them to skadoot. Damnit Papa Logan, stop trying to make skadoot happen! Skadoot will not happen!
The kids try and get some answers about their activity 'raising the devil' because that's as good an explanation as they've got right now, but the Logans give up nothing. So once again they walk into the plot, say skadoot! and disappear.
Night falls, and Warren decides it's time to leave, but remembers that he gave the keys to the camper to Johnny Come Deadly. So it's back into the woods all alone in the dark. This should go well!
And in a rare moment of actual movie making, Just Before Dawn stumbles upon a legitimately good scene. Warren wanders through the dark woods, things only lit up by his solitary lantern. He tries to find Jonathan, and as he moves the light around, only the audience can see him lain up against a tree in the background, only to then be buried in the darkness again as Warren moves on.
That...that is seriously actual cinematography at work, and it's an amazing scene, as Jonathan keeps coming into and out of the light, with Warren not seeing him. The only problem with the scene is, Warren already knows his friend is dead, so as spooky and creepy as it may be, it's not really a big reveal moment, aside from someone moving the body being out of place.
Oh hey, remember Ranger Captain Ashland is in this movie? Yeah, he rides back in on his horse to visit the Logans, and before they can pop their claws, they tell him they ain't seen nothin', except for Merry Cat, but the ranger just shrugs and rides on.
George Kennedy's role is ultimately pointless, innit? Nearly so, but Merry actually leads him to the kids' camp for now.
A camp which is currently only inhabited by Connie, who hears the emergency whistle being blown, and doesn't know what to do anymore.
The Murder Twins show up, so Connie runs off, and climbs up a tree. One of the killers uses his machete to start hacking away, and I absolutely love that the tree falls in the forest, with Connie in it making sounds.
I would've been quite happy if that had killed her by crushing, because it would be unique and amazing, but she escapes for the moment and runs through the trees some more as the ranger arrives.
Warren's still somehow alive, runs into the ranger, and they all head to the camp. Good, because the runtime is ticking down.
At this point, all George gotta do is follow the whistle's noise. Or maybe the chopping sounds at 2 in the morning. Or the screams. Take your pick!
But anyways, they find the camp, or wherever Connie ran off to, and the ranger actually kills the slasher. But that's why there being twins is so brilliant. You get that Not Really Dead moment, while playing absolutely fair with how effective bullets can be.
Connie and Warren think they can ride off into the sunset in their RV, and George Kennedy is eager to have them off the mountain and safe. After the ranger leaves them, they try and pack up, but before they can leave, of course the remaining ceiling slasher pops up.
He nicks Warren in the coat, and I love Connie flinging herself through the air onto his back like a pouncing cat. While the guy just lays there whimpering and stunned like a giant coward. She shows zero fear in the face of fighting this monster, which is a great callback to earlier in the movie when she was frozen in terror by Jonathan's noises in the woods. Damnit, who told this horror movie it could have legit character arcs?!
And how does she finally take down this hulking beast of a Leatherface wannabe? She *punches her fist down his fucking throat* and chokes him out from the inside. That's damned epic, and STILL not seen much of to this day.
She stands up, triumphant and grinning, and surely that's more signs of shock and trauma than anything else, but her boyfriend is still just laying there, trying to crawl around, and agape in sheer awe and fear at what she just did. And rightly so.
You only see her finally show emotion and start to crack when there's more rustlings from the brush, and she perfectly plays that sense of OH NO NOT AGAIN IT'S NOT OVER SHIT FUCK NO. But fortunately it's just Merry Cat. Or maybe Ashley Olsen. They did say this area has a lotta twins...
Merry sees what was done and runs away, and I love that the final shot of the movie is the woman standing strong and triumphant, while her boyfriend sobs helplessly against her, barely able to kneel, let alone stand.
And thus ends the second review of the Summer of Slashers! Remember, next time out is Triskaidekafiles 200th review, and a brief break from our Summervacation. What could it possibly be?? Whatever it is, I will be bringing it to you on the 26th, free to view, no strings attached! So be sure to be here for the celebration in just under two weeks!
Video: Okay, the DVD I watched, and the caps above, come from the International Cut of the movie, because I always want to get the most movie for my torment. But, it did not look great. You see all those green scratches. There's worse beyond those in there. The shorter but original uncut version on the same disc looks a LOT better. I also don't really hold the looks against it too much, because of the age and budget range of this feature.
Audio: It sounds pretty good for its age.
Sound Bite: SKADOOT!
Body Count: The small budget, and small cast, stuck out in nowheresville forest doesn't make for a high count.
1 - 5:20 in and already Vachel gets knifed in the balls.
2- After nearly an hour later, Jonathan finally is the next to fall, literally, into the river twice, and drowns.
3 - Daniel is the next to die when he lets the killer get too close.
4 - The Murder Twins take out Megan off camera.
5 - Ranger George kills one of the Murder Twins
6 - And the other Murder Twin is choked to death with Connie's fist down his throat.
Best Corpse: I am quite partial to the giant machete jutting out of Daniel's gut, but I can give points to every single murder here.
Blood Type - D: It's fairly bloodless, but it does have a few solid moments.
Sex Appeal: Skinny dipping! With clothes, and without.
Drink Up! Every time you hear whistling.
Video Nasties: I had a few good choices, but I had to highlight that moment of genuine quality filmmaking.
Movie Review: IT STINKS! Ahem. Sorry, still working out the Pod People feelings here. In a scale of slasher movies, it's done well enough. There's nothing really WRONG here. The plot is simple and straightforward enough, and maybe a little coincidentally derivative. It's well within cheesy cinema fare, and not much better, but that's just fine. Even the acting is actually pretty solid. It's well paced, it always makes sense, they actually have character arcs for the cast, it's hard to really find fault here. It's just *cheap*. Three out of five rope bridges.
Entertainment Value: The Logans steal the show, for the few minutes their on screen. They add this air of creepy weirdness, and if the movie fails at one thing, it is that this family could have been further developed, and their beliefs explored with more depth. The campers are silly and entertaining, and for a slasher that feels like we've been here before, there's just enough different to keep your attention. Four out of five skadoots.