31 Horror Movies in 31 Days- Just Before Dawn (1981)

The sounds of chirping birds and other facets of Mother Nature can be a source of placid nirvana or existential dread. Just Before Dawn taps directly into the latter with the sun crisply peaking over the horizon while Brad Fiedel stirs an electronically modulated, whistling score in the background. Contrary to Crystal Lake, these woods aren’t beleaguered with summer campers or frolicking teenagers in search of drugs and firmament to have sex.

Instead Jeff Lieberman introduces us to the soused hunters Ty (Mike Kellin) and Vachel (Charles Bartlett) who seek refuge inside a church. Later, their truck’s parking brake is unhinged (a lavish stunt) and an incognito, corpulent, machete-wielding sociopath with a wheezing cackle perforates Vachel through his abdomen in a non-shlocky murder. Lieberman isn’t discreet with wide shots of the slovenly killer’s face from Ty’s point-of-view.

From that juncture onward, Lieberman defenestrates the preconceived cliches of what a slasher should be. As Warren (a pubescent Gregg Henry) says “where we’re going, there is no summer camp”. The summit of a mountain is an ominous milieu for the genocidal circumstances. As detrimental as the malefactor is, the crossing of a rope bridge over a waterfall is nearly as gravity-defying and harrowing.

Meanwhile, The Naked Gun’s George Kennedy is amusingly fastidious and churlish as the forest ranger who is conducting ornamental tree surgery. He plainly warns, in a John Wayne cadence, that he won’t “come after them” if they’re endangered. The plot twist is rather daytime soap opera in its trite exhibition but it also doesn’t require utter suspension-of-disbelief.

Lieberman isn’t niggardly on the slow-burn, no-frills atmosphere and the precise film is staggeringly well-mounted for the limited resources. They may be rowdy with their campfire monkeyshines and generally insolent to the territorial yokels but this group of city slickers aren’t hopelessly vegetative here. In fact, one blows an alert whistle when he is nearly anatomized by a collapsing bridge.

Warren’s lantern search which glows on Jonathan’s (Chris Lemmon) body unbeknownst to him is a fiendishly Hitchcockian nugget of black bilious humor. Among the repertoire of inconspicuously lambent, outdoorsy chillers, the insidiously fun, elemental Just Before Dawn ranks with The Burning and The Final Terror for backwater devotees to unearth on their next hike.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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