Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Director Report Card: Jeff Lieberman (1981)

3. Just Before Dawn

In the late seventies and early eighties, the horror genre would be completely changed by John Carpenter's “Halloween.” After that, multiplexes, drive-ins, and what grindhouses that still survived were flooded with similar movies about teenagers being killed by maniacs wielding sharp implements. Jeff Lieberman, eager to continue working in the genre, decided to try his hand at the dead teenager flick. He would receive a script from Mark Arywitz and Jonas Middleton, that had been floating around since the mid-seventies, and heavily rewrite it. “Just Before Dawn” would be the result. Though widely overlooked in 1981, “Just Before Dawn” is now regarded as Lieberman's best film.

A group of teenagers head into Oregon's Silver Falls State Park for a weekend of camping, hiking, and partying. They are Warren, his girlfriend Constance, Jonathan, his girlfriend Megan, and his brother Daniel. From the moment they arrive in the woods, bad omens float their way. The local park ranger warns them the falls are dangerous. Their RV hits a deer as they enter the woods. A drunk old man rants about “demons” in the forest. They discover a family of inbred, religious hillbillies that tell them to leave. Soon, the campers are being picked off one by one by a mysterious killer.

Among the many slasher movies made in the early eighties, lots of them were about teenagers going camping in the woods and being killed. Movies like “Don't Go in the Woods,” “The Prey,” “The Final Terror,” and “The Forest” have a nearly identical premise to “Just Before Dawn.” However, Lieberman's movie is distinguished by his focus on forested isolation. The film begins with a shot of the sun rising over the woods. The characters are often depicted as small compared to the trees, mountains, and rushing rivers that surround them. The vastness of the woods and the sounds of unseen creatures fills the visual and audio background. More than many other flicks, you really get the sense here that it's easy for people to disappear among the woods.

Lieberman uses other tricks to make “Just Before Dawn” as creepy as possible. He repeats a gag throughout the film and it never fails to work. The camera will focus on characters in the foreground, doing something to draw the audience's eye. Such as a pair of hunters goofing off in an abandoned church, partially naked lovers kissing next to a waterfall, or a man walking through the dark woods. From there, he'll introduce something lurking in the background. We'll catch a glimpse of the film's killer in a window or behind a waterfall. Or a dead body approaching the camera more and more. It's a method that effectively ups the suspense and creeps the audience out.

Despite being exceptionally creepy, do not think “Just Before Dawn” subverts or breaks the rules of the then still emerging slasher genre. In fact, Lieberman's film hits most of the expected notes. Aside from the stock premise, many of the cliches are present. There's a Crazy Ralph-like character, a drunk old man who warns the kids but is ignored. Among the young people, there's a couple preoccupied with hanky panky. Naturally, this leads to their demises. There's even an older male authority figure there to sweep in and rescue the damsel in distress, like “Halloween's” Dr. Loomis. A spring loaded cat is switched out for a spring loaded deer but the effect is the same. “Just Before Dawn” proves that a slasher flick following most of the cliches does not make it any less effective.

Something that does distinguish this film from the “Friday the 13th” clones that would soon flood cinemas is its distinct lack of gore. “Just Before Dawn” does not have much in the ways of bloody deaths. Within its opening minutes, someone is stabbed through the crotch with a machete. Later, the same bladed instrument is shoved into a guy's gut. However, that's about it as far as blood and guts in “Just Before Dawn” goes. Many of the murders occur off-screen. It's evident that Lieberman was more interested in generating suspense than showing off graphic special effects.

Many of the slasher flicks that came out around the same time was content to stick their killers in a hood or ski mask and call it a day, if they cooked up a cool look for their murderer at all. “Just Before Dawn” manages to create a very memorable and creepy killer. Or killers, I should say. One of “Just Before Dawn's” cleverest twist is that twin brothers are responsible for the murders. The Mountain Twins have an appropriately inbred appearance, with their Neanderthal foreheads and stocky bodies. They take trophies from each of their kills, leading to ever evolving appearances. Moreover, these guys are just creepy. They either make weird little giggles or bizarre animal sounds. I don't know if they have the cool factor of a Jason or a Cropsy but the Mountain Twins totally work for “Just Before Dawn.”

As I said before, Jeff Lieberman did not write “Just Before Dawn” alone. Arywitz and Middleton's screenplay went through two previous titles, “The Tennessee Mountain Murders” and  “The Last Ritual.” That second iteration apparently featured a heavy religious component, with the killers being snake-handlers and the final girl being married off to one of them. Lieberman would cut most of this stuff when he rewrote the script, finding it tedious. However, you can still see traces of this in the final film. The hikers quickly encounter the highly religious mountain family, especially noticing the eccentric daughter. We soon learn that the Twins are part of this family. It never quite crystallizes into anything solid but there's definitely a thread of religious repression and familial abuse running underneath the movie.

As a horror movie, “Just Before Dawn” focuses more on creating a creepy atmosphere than outright scares. However, the movie still gets in several sequences of fantastically tense suspense. A rope bridge puts in a prominent appearance early in the movie. This setting is reprised with one person on the bridge and the killer on the other side, a sequence that builds fantastically until a wonderful pay-off. Later, there's another moment of sustained suspense when Constance scales a tree while one of the Twins hacks away at it with his machete. The final confrontation between heroine and killer has an especially grisly conclusion. Despite the monster being dispatched, “Just Before Dawn” does not end on a triumphant note. Instead, it's conclusion leaves the audience unnerved and unsettled. There's no end for a cheap “Or is it?” ending. The implications of the ending – that our heroes' innocence has been destroyed forever – is disturbing enough.

“Just Before Dawn” is a notable slasher flick in another way. It puts a little more time and effort into developing its spam-in-a-van (or, more accurately, spam-in-a-winnebago) characters than some other films in this disreputable sub-genre. This was only Gregg Henry's second theatrical film, though he was already stacking up a long list of television credits. As Warren, he begins the film as a somewhat meatheaded lover boy. However, as the situation grows graver, Henry brings an fittingly sweaty sense of panic to the part. Deborah Benson is also relatable and down-to-earth as Constance. The character seems more aware of how dangerous things are earlier than most final girls.

Of the characters that don't make it out of the movie alive, Jamie Rose is also sweet as Megan. Though she has a silly preoccupation with her make-up, the actress successfully conveys how in-over-her-head the character quickly becomes. I also like Chris Lemmon as Jonathan, her photographer boyfriend. These could've been indistinct parts but the actors bring enough personality to them to make the characters more memorable. Of course, I must also acknowledge George Kennedy, the marquee name in the film who probably shot his scenes in a day or two. Despite that, Kennedy brings a folksy charm to the part. The character actually seems somewhat invested in the lives of these kids.

Another element that makes “Just Before Dawn” so effectively creepy is its sound. The sound design is frequently sparse, emphasizing the sounds of whistles and animal noises in the otherwise silent, isolating woods. The music is also suitably spooky. Brad Fiedel provides a droning and distorted electronic score. The music does not reach the level of Fiedel's iconic “Terminator” score. However, that synthesized buzz does ratchet up the creep factor in a few scenes, creating an ominous and grim atmosphere.

Slasher movies were still a hot commodity in 1981. The independently produced film was nearly acquired by Universal, who presumably would've given it a wide release. That deal fell through and the film only had a limited release instead. Naturally, VHS is where “Just Before Dawn” would really find its audience. In the years since, it's become a hidden gem of the horror genre and definitely among the most polished of the early eighties slashers. Though lacking the social commentary of “Blue Sunshine,” it's undoubtedly Jeff Lieberman's most effective and well made film. [Grade: B+]

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