[Editor's Note: Just Before Dawn celebrates its 40th anniversary on November 27th! We hope you enjoy this special edition of Let's Scare Bryan to Death that celebrates the film's 40th anniversary!]
Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! As you are aware from my interview with Gena Radcliffe a few months back, I’m a big fan of the Kill By Kill podcast, a show that started with a full run-through of the characters from the Friday the 13th franchise, but has since moved on to covering all sorts of well-known and deeper-cut horror movies with humor and panache. So, it was only a matter of time before I had to have a chat with Patrick Hamilton, the show’s co-host who has a knack for finding ’80s oddities that are just off the beaten path.
Of course his selection for this month, Just Before Dawn, is no exception. Ironically released just after the dawn of the slasher boom, Just Before Dawn also has the distinction of being my first movie from Jeff Lieberman, a director who I know a bit by reputation as having a quirky style in films like Squirm and Blue Sunshine.
On paper, Just Before Dawn seems to align with the slasher formula pretty well, as a group of young adults make their way up to a secluded mountain campsite owned by Warren (Gregg Henry, whose casting automatically raised my interest level by 10%). With him are his girlfriend Constance (Deborah Benson), his brother Jonathan (Chris Lemmon), Jonathan’s girlfriend Megan (Jamie Rose), and another friend/obligatory fifth wheel Daniel (Ralph Seymour). Little do they know, however, that they are not the only occupants on the mountain, as a hulking hillbilly we first meet skewing a hunter’s crotch has taken to stalking them.
As I said, a pretty standard slasher premise, but Lieberman definitely imbues the proceedings with an unnerving tone and unique narrative decisions that give the film some personality (more on these later so, as usual, consider this your blanket spoiler alert). But before we get into those, Patrick, do you remember your first time watching Just Before Dawn?
I very much do. I was introduced to Just Before Dawn in my first year of college by a friend on a grainy VHS dub, which only added to the uneasy creep factor of the proceedings. I went into it knowing nothing and left completely blown away. Such is the benefit of watching horror in the pre-internet ’90s—a shocking ending could retain its shock for years.
I agree with you, Bryan, Jeff Lieberman is the secret sauce to this film for me. He likes to play around with the norms of the genre, keeping his audience off-kilter. Obviously, Dawn is directly inspired by Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as it was made in the sweet spot after John Carpenter’s Halloween, but before Friday the 13th solidified so many slasher film tropes. Lieberman goes a few steps further by modifying the plot and character dynamics enough so that it doesn’t ever feel like a straight rip-off of any one film. It’s a dash of Deliverance and TCSM—survival horror to be sure—but if you go in cold, you really won’t see a lot of the twists coming.
One of the more interesting elements to Dawn is George Kennedy’s Roy McLean. This forest ranger becomes a combination of all sorts of archetypes: he’s the “Harbinger,” warning these young travelers not to go into the woods; he’s a “Rescuer,” moved by his conscience not to sit idly by when he senses that danger is afoot; and finally, the “Investigator,” off on a parallel track from our main protagonists seeking answers after his encounter with a drunken hunter who proclaims that there are killers loose in the deep, dark forest. You get the feeling that Roy does not want to engage with any of this. He’d be happy to stay out of it—but his sense of duty drags him out into the dark of night to find five innocent idiots who wouldn’t listen to him!
Kennedy is definitely bringing something unique to the role, giving it that Donald Pleasence casting gravitas, but tossing in a heavy splash of weird. For example, were my eyes deceiving me, or are we introduced to his character working on a project that basically involved him attaching the branch of one plant onto the branch of another plant to devise some sort of Frankenstein’s shrubbery?
That is one of the ways bonsai trees and shrubbery are created (thank you Tree TikTok!). Roy feels like a person who is very happy to be away from humanity. He wants to hole up, talk to his animals, and avoid pesky people and their desire to put themselves in harm’s way. And why wouldn’t you when you’re surrounded by the vast beauty of the Oregon wilderness?
Well, I’ve learned something about botanical design today! And Roy’s is an entirely reasonable stance to take. I will say, though, that I did wonder if he was our killer in the early goings, especially given that in the opening scene, our murderous man of the land did seem to be sprouting some wispy, white hair. I assume Roy was an intentional red herring, given we’re still at a period where the whodunnit element is still at play in the slasher realm. Was that a factor for you, or was I overthinking it?
For sure, the mystery here is not the whodunit, but a howmanydunit, I guess. When it comes to the twist, I was genuinely surprised the first time I saw the film. Just Before Dawn plays with the audience and the familiar slasher conventions—it zigs when others zagged and it adds an element of unpredictability in a genre that often fits into a pre-fashioned mold in order to satisfy the audience.
To that point, one of JBD’s best selling points is that our main group of hot young people do not come across as cookie-cutter slabs of meat just waiting for a cleaver. Lieberman gives them all a chance at greater depth and is not hemmed in by the prevailing gender norms of the time. Our campers are not hapless teens, but full-fledged adults. The film is one of the few of that slasher wave where the men tend to crumble much more quickly than the women do, and it brings a fresh dynamic not often seen in other offerings at the time.
I picked up on that dynamic as well, and was particularly intrigued by Constance’s and Warren’s inverse character arcs. Where Constance starts out as timid and subservient to Warren’s more dominant personality, we see Constance’s survival instincts blossom while Warren progressively loses it over the course of the movie.
Also intriguing is the external representation of Constance’s transformation, as she starts the film dressed as something of a tomboy archetype, but as her demeanor progresses toward that of a person no longer willing to take shit, her outfit gets progressively skimpier until the final act where she’s facing off against the baddies in a belly shirt and Daisy Dukes. Do we think this was deliberate commentary on Lieberman’s part, or just an excuse to show some skin? Perhaps a bit of both?
If I had to guess, one idea feeds the other. The film doesn’t lack for skin, so it’s not like the movie needed Constance to become a half-naked badass. Perhaps it’s a riff on Ripley in Alien, where she’s shedding the fear and terror she’s experienced, only to be confronted with it again. It’s hard to shake men with bad intent, sadly.
Speaking of, the movie is really helped by the soundtrack by Brad Fiedel. Once that whistle gets into your brain, it’s hard to shake loose. Lieberman has a deft hand with the camera as well, using POV in a way that’s more animal-like than the smooth Panaglide of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Plus, Constance’s mania at the finale reminds me a lot of what made Tobe Hooper such an incredible storyteller, as he was always able to push performers to the ends of their wits—their threadbare hold on sanity snapping in front of the lens. Deborah Benson is able to convey that heightened level of panic and purpose in the film’s final minutes, which really pulls the audience into her desperation and ultimate triumph. Meanwhile, Gregg Henry collapses into his shell. For whatever reason, Henry seems to savour moments when characters become real weasels on screen.
But one of the core concepts that always unnerves me is that just outside the structured cities and towns in the world is a wilderness where rules don’t apply and help is not around the corner. As a kid, I was terrified of tales of the prairie and the trials of those who risked life and limb to see some American Dream on the other side of it, and this is one of those films that taps directly into those fears. Alone. Outside. And surrounded by the worst predator of them all: man.
Yeah, there’s an interesting dynamic between the campers and the killers, which in early stages of the script carried heavy religious undertones. Lieberman didn’t like them, however, so he rewrote the script and removed them.
What we’re left with is, as you mentioned, something much more aligned with Tobe Hooper, specifically the themes in Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a group of young adults infringing on a world where they don’t belong. Even if Warren’s family does technically own the land and fancy themselves as adept in the outdoors, ultimately there’s a sense that they’re out of their element. Even Fidel’s score alludes to that, as the whistle tones in the music mirror the rescue whistle Warren carries on the trip.
Ultimately, in order to overcome (big spoiler incoming, as I’m not nearly as conscientious as Patrick) not one but TWO killers, Constance not only has to come into her own, she has to tap into something truly primal as she literally jams her fist down one of their throats. Which begs the question, how is this movie not more well known for this scene alone?
That’s right, Bryan—grab a Coors, cause this killer is actually TWINS! I wonder why the “deep throating” isn’t as discussed as other shocking horror sequences as well? I had a really hard time tracking it down on VHS and DVD for the longest time. And yet I’ve owned it on Blu-ray three times now! It just hasn’t risen up the ranks in public awareness despite being more readily available than ever. Even if you’re not a “physical media” type, I know that it’s been in the listings on Shudder and Amazon Prime a few times over the past couple years. Some might view it as quaint considering the low gore levels, and it saves the biggest shock for the end. Our killer twins also aren’t as iconic as those that would populate the marketplace of early ’80s forest-based slashers, be it the Voorhees clan, Cropsey, Angela, or even Madman Marz—despite the fact that I feel Just Before Dawn actually outdoes most of those films.
Here’s what I do know: Just Before Dawn manages to hit way above its weight class and I’m knocked out every time I watch.
Now, here’s where I normally talk about whether or not a sequel/remake/reimagining/reboot/re-animation would be in order, but to be honest, I’m conflicted on this one because it seems like such a product of its time that I don’t know how you’d make a revisit more interesting today. Yet at the same time, I kinda want to see Henry revisit the film after all these years. What say you?
I certainly have no animus against sequels, remakes, and reboots—it’s just what Hollywood has always done. And you’re right, if they did do a remake, casting Gregg Henry in the George Kennedy role would be a no-brainer!
At the same time, there’s a big part of me that believes that Halloween never got better or more interesting than the 1978 original. What I really would like is more people to seek out Just Before Dawn and give it a chance for the movie that it is. There were plenty of early ’80s flicks that tried to combine the slasher film with a survival thriller—and while The Burning is a high point and Don’t Go In The Woods and The Final Terror are dire lows—Just Before Dawn is the perfect combination of mood, character, suspense sequences, and outlandish exploitation ending. It’s just a great flick. A “movie movie,” as they say.