Just Before Dawn
Dir. Jeff Lieberman (1981)
A group of young folks go camping and find themselves in the sights of a crazed man with a machete.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
I’ve seen a ton of buzz around Just Before Dawn, a movie I can honestly say I had never heard of before the last couple of weeks. I’ve even seen people list it as their favorite slasher movie of all time. Made me feel a little insecure about my horror knowledge, to be honest, and that shit ain’t going to fly. When I found that it was streaming on Shudder, I knew what my next watch was going to be. I’ll try my best to avoid major spoilers due to the unseen nature of the film, but I highly recommend checking it out before you read the rest of the review if you want to go in as blind as possible. The movie is about a group of college-aged kids who have bought some property in the Oregon wilderness and want to go check it out. Right from the beginning, the park ranger in charge of the area tries to warn the kids away, serving as the film’s token harbinger to warn the kids away. This film actually has a second harbinger, as the characters quickly come across the someone who warns them his brother has just been killed by “demons.” That’s two separate people telling these guys they need to get the fuck out of there in the first ten minutes of their adventure. Of course, they don’t listen, which is great for us because the film would be short and boring if they did.
Generally you want to run in the same direction he’s running, guys.
The film was made in 1981, just two years after Halloween popularized the genre and the year after Friday the 13th hit theaters. The fact that a lot of these tropes were already developed is crazy, and this movie is a great example of how all of the tropes can be used successfully to create a suspenseful, bloody slasher flick. Unlike in a lot of slasher films, however, the killer is with our visitors from the beginning, having glommed onto their RV before they ever made their way to the campsite. He’s like a little backwoods spider monkey, clinging to their transport like a Hillbilly Gymnast (which I totally have dibs on for a metal band name). He pops up in random places, and he’s actually really fucking creepy. The film makes use of a whistle-based indication of the killer’s presence: instead of ki ki ki ma ma ma that Jason tends to gravitate towards, this killer sounds like he’s whistling into the wilderness, a sound that is based on the safety whistle one of the characters carries. The movie is right at an hour and a half long, which is the perfect length to move the plot along swiftly and allow for a number of brutal kills. The whistling score and the random singing from the wilderness lend a mysterious feel to the whole movie, and you’re never quite sure whether the characters can hear what the audience can. The characters are at least as dumb as most slasher movie characters, and their decision to cross the scariest rope bridge in history is perhaps dumber. Something tells me that the majority of this film’s budget was spent on stuntmen and hospital bills. That and creepy-ass woods children who eerily pop up in random places. Between the remoteness of the locale and the killer’s ghoulish laugh, we know that escape is going to be hard to come by and that blood will be spilled before any help arrives. The twist of the film is foreshadowed early, and it’s one that makes sense in the world that the film has built. It doesn’t feel shoehorned in, as most twists in horror films tend to be. The film is actually pretty damn creepy, which was a nice surprise. There’s something about the isolation of being alone on a mountain, stalked by a killer you don’t even know to be looking out for (though, to be fair, they probably should’ve known since two people literally fucking told them). The description of the “demon” provides a nice bit of creep factor similar to Loomis’ description of Michael in Halloween, and the macabre movements of the killer, as well as his ability to pop up anywhere due to his knowledge of the terrain and inhuman climbing abilities, serves to make the audience uneasy from the first glimpse of his enormous presence. The movie is also not afraid to be actually violent, something that Halloween shied away from and Friday the 13th used to great effect a year prior. Perhaps the best part about the film is that this is not some supernatural “Shape” like we see in Halloween, or the rumored reanimated corpse of a murdered child like in F13. It’s just, like… a big dude with a machete who doesn’t want people on his land. The scariest part is, shit like this actually happens.
Deliverance without the banjo.
Who this movie is for: Slasher historians, 80’s horror fans, People with purty moufs Bottom line: A nice, creepy entry into the slasher genre, and one of the originals that hasn’t ever gotten as much love as it deserves. I don’t know why this one slipped through the cracks when there are so many terrible slashers that hit the mainstream, but this one is actually better than most. Genuinely scary at times, it moves along well enough so that you don’t find yourself waiting for the next big kill (though it does drag at times heading into the last act). The score adds well to the feeling of isolation and terror, and the killer, while a bit mundane, it utilized well. As someone who hates the outdoors, I’d much rather fend off Freddy than have to climb a mountain to get away from the killer in this movie.