Making the statement that slasher movies were popular during the 1980s is like saying that water is wet and the sky is blue. After the successes of Halloween and Friday the 13th, it seemed like literally every other film which popped up in cinemas during the early part of the decade featured a group of young people being terrorized and murdered by some psycho. Of course, after awhile, slasher films became pretty interchangeable and the genre’s popularity had completely died down by the time the decade came to an end. However, during this time period, a few quality slasher flicks did manage to slip through the cracks and solidified their status as an “underrated gem”. A prime example of this would be a 1981 effort titled Just Before Dawn. The film was directed by Jeff Lieberman, who was probably best known for making Squirm, a horror film about killer earthworms, and to the surprise of no one, Squirm wound up being immortalized on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Coming on the heels of the success of Friday the 13th, Universal Pictures had serious interest in purchasing and distributing the low-budget Just Before Dawn, but the deal wound up falling through. Even though it did manage to secure a theatrical release, the film pretty much faded into obscurity, but it has garnered a cult following over the years. Just Before Dawn doesn’t really do anything remarkable or groundbreaking, but it is pretty well-made and a cut above most slasher flicks.
In typical slasher movie fashion, the plot of Just Before Dawn involves a group of young people going on an ill-fated camping trip. They include Warren (Gregg Henry), who has just inherited some property in the Oregon mountains; his strong-willed girlfriend, Connie (Deborah Benson); Jonathan (Chris Lemmon, son of Jack) and his girlfriend, Megan (Jamie Rose); and, of course, the single nerdy guy, Daniel (Ralph Seymour), who obviously feels like a fifth wheel with these two couples. Anyway, the group are travelling to Warren’s newly inherited property when they cross paths with a forest ranger named Roy (George Kennedy). Not surprisingly, the eccentric old coot advises them to turn around and stay out of the mountains, but they ignore his warnings. The group soon encounters a crazy old drunk named Ty (Mike Kellin, the lead camp counsellor from Sleepaway Camp), who is rambling on about “demons” because his nephew has just been brutally murdered. Once again, the young folks ignore these ominous warning signs and continue on their camping trip. They later meet a strange backwoods family called the Logans, who also warn them to leave. Even when the group is dancing to 1980s rock music and a mysterious gunshot takes out their radio, they refuse to put an end to their outing.
Right from the outset, it’s pretty clear than a large mountain man with a machete is stalking the characters, but the movie eventually reveals that this mad slasher is actually a pair of twins (played by John Hunsacker in a dual role). To the surprise of no one, the twins belong to the Logan family and have probably turned out the way they did because of generations of inbreeding. You can’t really accuse this film of borrowing the “machete-wielding villain” idea from Friday the 13th since Jason Voorhees didn’t even start using his machete until Friday the 13th Part 2, which came out around the same time. Just Before Dawn actually has a lot more in common with The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance, but it’s still a superior entry in the genre and one of the more well-crafted slasher films of the 1980s. Like I said earlier, the film doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but it does what it does well. It moves at a fairly deliberate pace and none of the major characters are even killed off until the movie is half over, but it does a very solid job of generating tension. There is some gorgeous cinematography on display for the Oregon mountains setting and a genuinely spooky backwoods atmosphere. Jeff Lieberman does know how to stage an effective horror sequence, such as when Megan and Jonathan go skinny dipping and Megan assumes her boyfriend is playfully grabbing her from underwater… until she makes the shocking realization that Jonathan has already swam to shore. The best sequence is probably the final one, where Connie and Warren are attacked by one of the twins. In one of the most badass moments you’ll ever see in a horror film, Connie manages to choke her attacker to death by literally shoving her fist down his throat! It’s a rare that a slasher flick can emit a pure “holy shit” reaction from me, but that’s exactly what happened when I first saw this.
As you can see, Deborah Benson manages to make Connie into one of the strongest, more underrated heroines of the genre. In fact, by slasher movie standards, the quality of the acting and the characters is better than average. Many of the actors in this cast went on to bigger things, particularly Gregg Henry, who is best known for his roles in Payback, Slither and was recently seen playing Peter Quill’s grandfather in Guardians of the Galaxy. Henry is a lot of fun in the role of Warren, and his relationship with Connie is one of the more interesting aspects of the film. Warren acts like your typical macho boyfriend at first, but shows himself to be a weak useless coward once terrible things start happening. Warren winds up being completely upstaged by his girlfriend and his stunned reaction to seeing Connie morph into a badass who chokes people with her fist is pretty priceless. While we’re on the subject of people who went on to bigger things, the composer on Just Before Dawn was Brad Fiedel, who found fame a few years later with his iconic musical score for The Terminator. Just Before Dawn actually has a pretty minimalist score, as the music mostly consists of an eerie whistling sound, but it does a marvellous job at building up the tension. Even though Just Before Dawn doesn’t really do anything new, there’s something to be said about genre films which go beyond the call of duty. Since it was a virtual guarantee for pretty much any low-budget slasher film to make a profit during the 1980s, the filmmakers could have easily done a half-assed job, but Jeff Lieberman and company decided to put some effort into it and the end result is one of the genre’s most underrated gems.