Friday, March 5, 2010

Just Before Dawn (1981)

Reviewed By: Billy

Just Before Dawn is a rare thing at Tower Farm. It’s a movie that I truly love because it’s good. This is no Chained Heat; I don’t love this movie because Linda Blair gets hit on by Sybil Danning in the shower while being called a “new fish.” I love Just Before Dawn because, like the original Black Christmas, it is one of the truly great and effective slasher films of all time. The acting, script, direction, and especially the music are truly top-notch, and there are enough surprises here that it doesn’t feel as dated as something like Final Exam.

However, fear not faithful followers – there are plenty of things to make fun of.

Just Before Dawn – like another one of my favorites, Savage Weekend – falls into the backwoods camping horror subgenre sparked off in the 70s by the success of Deliverance (see also: Rituals and The Final Terror). For some reason, people in the 1970s were really freaked out that they’d go camping and get raped by hillbillies. Personally, I think if you stick to state parks you’re okay, but for some reason these 1970s young adults felt the need to hike into the Appalachian wilderness and just wait to be assaulted.

Thankfully, unlike in Deliverance, there are more than just middle-aged schlubs up for the survival challenge this time around. Our group here consists of a young and super-cool Gregg Henry (who, years later, would steal the show in Slither) and a young and super-cool Chris Lemmon (looking just like his father, Jack…except with bushier hair). The wonderful Deborah Benson and Jamie Rose play their respective girlfriends, while Ralph Seymour rounds out the group as the dorky fifth wheel (which, as we know, every cool group of friends is forced to include...i.e. Franklin in Texas Chainsaw, Randy in Scream, etc.). From their very first appearance you will wish you were part of this group. I mean, come on…Gregg Henry appears to be sipping from a can of beer while driving an RV and the whole crew is rocking out to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” They’re awesome!

Anyway, it seems Gregg’s family owns some land up in the middle of nowhere, and these geniuses have decided to haul their RV up the side of a mountain to get there. A massive motor home wouldn’t exactly be my first choice as a cliff-climbing vehicle…but what the hell. Along the way they meet the forest ranger, who warns them that the mountain is no place for camping… “especially with ladies along.” Uh-oh…sounds like a hillbilly rape warning to me. Of course, the cool kids totally disregard the ranger, basically spending the entire conversation making fun of the guy before speeding off in their totally inappropriate mammoth vehicle.

Oh, and did I mention that the forest ranger is played by the wonderful George Kennedy…acting as crazy as ever while shouting, “I WARNED YA!”

Speaking of red flags…the group next encounters a crazy drunk wandering through the wilderness who tells them he’s being chased be a “demon” on the mountain. Again, our kids totally ignore what is basically a blatant warning of hillbilly molestation, and leave the poor bum to walk back down the mountain alone!

And…well…while we’re still on the subject of red flags, once the group has set up camp they come across a young, barefoot hillbilly girl singing a creepy song while playing in a stream. COME ON, guys…we’ve done everything but play dueling banjos here…get the hell out of the moutains! Of course, they don’t…and instead take the natural course of action: cross a rickety old rope bridge and go skinny-dipping!

The skinny-dipping scene is a great one, as we soon see our hillbilly killer dive under the water and start fondling Jamie Rose, who thinks it’s her boyfriend...and let me tell you, this guy can really hold his breath. As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s actually well done and very icky…especially when Jamie looks to the shore and sees her man, realizing that it’s someone else under the water messing around with her. And yet…RED FLAGS…they still don’t bother jumping in that camper and driving back down the mountain!

They’ll regret that, of course, once the killings begin – which happens about 50 minutes in. Chris Lemmon is the first to go, coming face to face with the hillbilly killer on that damn rope bridge which, of course, means he’s going to die a watery death. The killer, by the way, is exceedingly creepy. He’s not the rubbery-looking mutant you’ll find in Wrong Turn (a movie clearly inspired by this one); he’s just a dirty, fat slob who wheezes and giggles and walks around with mean-looking machete:

Jamie Rose and Ralph Seymour die off literally minutes later, in another perfectly played scene taking place in an abandoned chapel. Poor Ralph gets a machete in the stomach while Jamie…well, we’re not quite sure what happens to her…but it doesn’t sound good. Oh, and by the way, we find out in this scene that the big fat hillbilly killer – who thus far has seemed to move around really, really fast – is actually twins. Apparently hillbilly inbreeding makes one very fertile. Double the fun!

Anyway, things roar to an exciting climax as Gregg Henry and Deborah Benson face down the dynamic duo in the middle of the woods. Well, actually, it’s just Deborah doing the facing down, as Gregg becomes a blithering idiot, crying on the ground and being generally useless. This is one area in which Just Before Dawn still seems incredibly modern; the man, in this case, is a total whiney wimp, whereas the woman kicks some ass. In fact, the major character arc of the movie involves Deborah becoming more and more primal, tapping into her savage side which culminates in her literally jamming her fist down one of the killer’s throats. It’s an amazing scene that I hate to ruin with a screencap…but how can I not include this?

As I mentioned before, this is one of those movies in which all of the elements just seem to click. Everyone involved – even crazy old George Kennedy – rises to the occasion. The score is also one of the all-time horror greats; it’s amazing more movies don’t completely rip it off. Just Before Dawn is that rare combination of a truly effective horror movie (i.e. The Exorcist) that also happens to be ridiculously enjoyable (i.e. I Know Who Killed Me). And for that, it easily rates…



  1. I've read nothing but good things about this. It seems to be one of the better slasher flicks from the eighties and somehow strangely overlooked. Must try to track down a copy. Thanks for the review!

  2. If Jamie Rose had a bigger set (and wasn't a redhead) and maybe if there was a lezbo scene, JBD woulda bin right up there.

    Have you reviewed Cheerleader Camp yet? I'll search your site now - good tiddies in that one!

  3. Billy,

    You A-Hole -- "a blatant warning of hillbilly molestation"!! I almost spit coffee all over our parents' computer.

    Oh well, at least this time the excuse for ruining my parents computer would be legitimate... unlike the those mysterious viruses that would somehow infect their machines when we used to live with them.


  4. One of my favorite slasher films. Great review!

  5. I just have never been able to get in to this one as hard as I try, I like the camp elements as always, but man.. Im just not one of the cool kids lol.. Glad you guys liked it!

  6. I like it, too, it's just a shame Media Blasters used such a washed out print and it's missing the movies sole gore scene at the beginning which is present on the old Paragon tape. One of those guys gets run through real nasty like with that mean looking machete. The extras on the second disc are worth the purchase even if you don't like the movie that much. Agree about the waterfall scene. Great shot of pudgy hillbilly guy coming through the waterfall in the background behind the couple in the water.