In what will be an ongoing feature this summer I will be reviewing horror films (some with more 'slashing' than others) of varying ilks. All of this will culminate and coalesce into a much larger format/project that myself and other bloggers will unveil at a later time. My thanks to Tim Brayton, who, most likely unbeknownst to him, allowed me to completely rip off his Summer of Blood idea at his blog Antagony & Ecstasy. See what I did there: I replaced 'blood' with 'slash' so not to be too overt about my cribbing. Hugo Stiglitz will invariably be a blog of horror reviews and essays this summer; however, should I come across something not horror related that I feel like writing about I will make sure to do so.
Read any interview with director Jeff Lieberman and he will adamantly insist that he had never seen Tobe Hooper's seminal 1970's horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before writing the screenplay for his 1980 horror gem – and cult favorite among die-hard fans of the genre – Just Before Dawn. Lieberman's backwoods slasher actually has more in common with the natural horror of James Dickey's Deliverance (something that Lieberman also points out in various interviews), and made this horror fan think of the modern man (or woman) vs. nature horror found in Neil Marshall's The Descent. The two films actually share more in common than one might think: Lieberman's film starts off as a story about a group of young people (I say late teens) looking to hike and camp and challenge themselves against the elements; however, not only do they find that the elements are indifferent towards them, but like The Descent, what starts out as a film about people overcoming natural obstacles devolves into a more recognizable kind of horror film where the characters are fighting for survival against a completely different kind of obstacle. However, Just Before Dawn is a step above most dead teenager films, and Lieberman's direction makes for some truly eerie moments in a film that perpetuates dread just as well as any from that era – and it's all punctuated with one of the genre's most famous dénouements.
The film begins just like any of these kinds of grindhouse horror film do: a group of teenagers want to go into the backwoods (filmed at Silver Creek Falls National park in Sublimity, Oregon about 20 minutes from where I live…woo hoo, Oregon!) and do all kinds of good-natured (harhar) shenanigans.
Ah, but alas they meet a crusty old park ranger on their way into the woods played by George Kennedy (!) who has the thankless roll of being like all of the other crusty old people in these types of movies. He warns them no to go into the woods, but of course the teens don't listen and as they drive into the woods a mysterious figure attaches itself to the hood of their van as it disappears into nature.
And that's your basic setup for what is truly one of the most interesting and forgotten gems of the genre. Oh, sure, Just Before Dawn doesn't re-invent the wheel, but it does have some truly creepy moments that are on a par with the films it counts as its influences (among the aforementioned Deliverance, the film also resembles Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, another film released before this one that Lieberman insists he hadn't seen).
One of those moments is the introduction of our backwoods killer who squeals like a pig elated. Two obvious murder victims wonder around an abandoned church before one of them turns to see a large man with a giant machete. What I like here is that Lieberman doesn't try to make the killers mysterious in any way…they're just extremely messed up dudes and here's what they look like. No mystery and no oversaturation with the killers, either, they're on screen just enough (much like Leatherface) to maintain their creepiness.
Another great moment comes when the motif of a safety whistle is made ironic as one of the teens tries crossing a rickety bridge – a bridge that provided an earlier moment of suspense thanks to the great direction and use of the set piece – where he happens upon the previously mentioned pig-squealing psycho…what follows is actually more horrifying because Lieberman refrains from fake looking violence and gore and simply has the maniac wield his machete, the teen trying to double back across the bridge, and then the maniac cutting the ropes to the bridge causing the teen to fall to his death. It's rare for a movie like this to show such restraint – I don't know if it was the lack of budget or what – but it's refreshing when the film metes out the psycho, slasher killer part of the story sparsely throughout, and focus just as much time to how nature can be just as deadly a killer.
Really, though, this film is a slasher film – albeit a different slasher film – and its best moments show how Lieberman takes the genre before it became super familiar, and used wide, establishing shots and natural sound in lieu of blood and guts and monotonous chase scenes to evoke dread and fear. Lieberman also has his DP Dean King film a lot of the scenes in a soft focus, creating an odd ethereal feel with the lighting that reminds one more of Michael Cimino than Wes Craven (actually the film feels more Italian Horror than American Slasher).
A good example of this is one scene where two of the happy campers are skinny dipping. In the background one of the killer's emerges from the mist of a waterfall and enters the water. The woman skinny dipping think its her boyfriend tugging at her beneath the water, only as she looks across the lake she sees that her boyfriend is over on some rocks. It's a genuinely creepy moment that is achieved through no false scares or hammy music.
Another moment is where one of the killers takes one of the teen's cameras and shoots images of her death through a broken window of the church we were introduced to at the beginning of the film. The death is shown off camera, and again Lieberman understands that the noises of the killer's and the idea that they are taking pictures of it all is something that is more horrifying than seeing someone slaughtered.
The end of the film is what has mostly made this film a cult classic. The moment where our final girl – after having to retreat up a tree to avoid the killer (but to no avail as the machete-wielding maniac cuts the tree down) – is being attacked (bear hugged to death actually), and turns the table by sticking her fist down the killer's throat. She keeps it there as the killer eventually dies. And that's it. Fin. The camera stops for a moment so that the characters – and the audience – can catch our breath, and then the two surviving characters sob in each others arms as their campfire's smoke drifts into the dawn of the morning. The camera pulls out and up to the dawn-lit skyline, and all we hear as the film fades to black is the sound of nature greeting the day and the sound of our two survivors weeping. It's a powerful final blow for a surprisingly effective little gem of a horror film.
The final image of the girl's hand in the killer's throat is not the only reason I think the film has amassed a cult following – although that's probably the primary reason early on as people no doubt dubbed copies of this for other horror fans – as Just Before Dawn is a prime example of how to do the backwoods slasher film well. I invoked the great modern horror film The Descent earlier, and it wouldn't surprise me if Just Before Dawn was on Marshall's mind when he was making his modern masterpiece. Both films deal with a familiar genre, yet both films seem to be more interested in a different kind of horror – one that pits its characters against the elements and then as if it's some kind of sick joke by the filmmakers, the characters have to fend off generic horror film character types (in this case it's the backwoods killer, in Marshall's case it's some kind of underground creature) in addition to having their ass kicked by the natural elements around them. It makes for an exhausting experience that does everything a horror film should do: exhilarate and terrify.
Just Before Dawn was released at about the same time as the original Friday the 13th, and that's the only explanation I can think of for its obscurity. It's as good a film as Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and despite some of the film's obvious flaws (seriously, George Kennedy is was ted in a role like this) and unnecessary detours (which was normal for these kind of exploitation film…in order to pad their run time) it's a film that has an amazingly eerie tone, and an ending that is on par with the slasher staples of the late 70's and early 80's. It's not revolutionary horror filmmaking, but it's a damn effective film, and a hidden gem that is just begging to get its due.