JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981) Reviews and overview

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‘The nightmare has begun…’

Just Before Dawn is a 1981 American horror film about young people that venture into Oregon backwoods and are stalked by hulking psychopaths.

Directed by Jeff Lieberman (Squirm; Blue Sunshine) from a screenplay co-written by Mark Arywitz and Jeff Lieberman [as Gregg Irving] based on a story by Joseph Middleton.  It was produced by David Sheldon (Lovely But Deadly; The Evil; Grizzly; Abby). The movie stars Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Jamie Rose, Mike Kellin (Sleepaway Camp; God Told Me To; The Boston Strangler) and George Kennedy (Uninvited; Creepshow 2; Death Ship; Strait-Jacket).

The subtle soundtrack score was composed by Brad Fiedel (The Terminator).

Blu-ray release:

In the US, Code Red, in association with Kino Lorber, will reissue Just Before Dawn on January 12, 2021. Special Features:

Previously restored from the original 35mm internegative
Includes uncut US version (91 minutes) and extended international version (102 minutes)
Interviews with stars Gregg Henry, Chris Lemmon, Jamie Rose and Producer David Sheldon
Vintage Featurette with Lemmon, Rose, Sheldon, Actor John Hunsaker (Mountain Twins) and Writer Mark Arywitz
Theatrical Trailer

Though the film came and went quietly upon its theatrical release it developed a cult following among horror fans. It is praised for its eerie atmosphere, lush cinematography, and above-average cast. Unlike many films of its kind, Just Before Dawn focuses far more on suspense and atmosphere, rather than upon gruesome violence, which, aside from a brutal machete kill early on, the film features very little of.

Director Lieberman cites the 1972 film Deliverance as the main influence on Just Before Dawn and it is his personal favourite of his own works.

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Mike Kellin

Plot:

Five friends go camping in the mountains, as Warren (Greg Henry) has bought a plot of land. Ignoring the warnings of forest ranger Roy Mclean (George Kennedy) of the dangers involved, they carry on going unawares that there is a psychotic murderer hitching a ride on the back of their camper van.

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John Hunsaker

After setting up camp they start to hear noises in the bushes and soon they all find themselves in terrible danger. Meanwhile, Mclean, hearing of a murderer in the vicinity sets off in pursuit of the imperilled campers…

Reviews [click links to read more]:

“Like the “monsters” in Squirm, this 1981 film is unusual in that it favors atmosphere and suspense over blood and guts, yet while this definitely sets it apart from the era’s mainstream slasher offerings, Just Before Dawn is a movie any fan of the genre will surely enjoy.” 2,500 Movies Challenge

“While the original script’s heavily religious themes were cut out — it was to end with the family forcing the final girl to handle snakes in a ritual — it’s still a pretty great take on a slasher, one more based in something that could happen, with little to none of the supernatural getting in the way of all that murder. And the way that the last bad guy is taken out — wow. Talk about visceral.” B&S About Movies

“All the youngsters are competently written and are a surprisingly sympathetic bunch; I didn’t spend the entire film hoping for the death of characters that the writers intend to irritate. The abandoned church makes a most welcome return later in the film in another standout sequence. The camera uses the poor vision of Daniel to create mounting tension, his point-of-view shot a mere blur as a figure strolls determinedly closer.” The Celluloid Highway

“Few films can claim to present a dangerous wilderness trip as realistically and enveloping as this one does. While relatively straightforward (as these things tend to be), there does seem to be an air of diseased religion about the whole affair.” Cinema Gonzo

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Jamie Rose and John Hunsaker

Just Before Dawn is one of the last drive-in titles to exude the surprise and genuine dread showcased in the best of the ’70s genre films […] Lieberman’s film is smartly-executed, well-acted, disturbing and scary. It’s a classic drive-in thriller not to be missed by fans of the era.” Monsters at Play

“I implore you to seek it out; it may not have been the trendiest or most forthcoming of features from its year, but it is undoubtedly one which you should have the wherewithal to explore further. If it’s a tense, taut and well-crafted top-to-bottom ninety minutes you crave, then look no further than the majesty of Lieberman’s personal highlight.” Rivers of Grue

“The film wasn’t made with a massive budget but it never feels cheap. There’s a solid twist at the end of the film that actually works quite well here too – all in all, Just Before Dawn holds up as a tense and clever backwoods slasher ripe with suspense.” Rock! Shock! Pop!

“I wouldn’t call Just Before Dawn a pioneer, but its creators caught up early enough a trend that horror buffs would eventually hunt down. This slasher went under the radar of several movie-goers because The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween were more iconic, but it’ll surely rub completists the right way.” Tales of Terror

Just before dawn VHS

” …while Just Before Dawn would not add anything new to the genre, it is a perfect example of how to do it right, even without overdoing it on the blood and gore. Definitely one to catch.” The Telltale Mind

The cast is first-rate and fresh-faced with Deborah Benson and Jamie Rose particularly impressive; the suspense at times is palpable. The inbred twins are frightening and the movie as a whole is a welcome twist on the Texas Chainsaw and Deliverance themes […] Ultimately, a scary and wonderful classic-to-be.” The Terror Trap

Just Before Dawn is not Friday the 13th, Wrong Turn, or any of a slew of other slasher flicks that throw out two dimensional cardboard characters to be slayed by a killer. It is a movie first, a story of survival and transformation, and it happens to have a backwoods killer in it. Watching slasher movies is about like panning for gold, you’re there to have fun and don’t expect to actually find gold. But once in a while a brilliant nugget shows up in your pan.” Toxic Fletch

Buy 88 Films Blu-ray: Amazon.co.uk

“Overall, the bulk of Just Before Dawn is ho-hum, but it has some truly memorable moments to help elevate it from the usual fare. Plus, the music by Brad (The Terminator) Fiedel is suitably creepy.” The Video Vacuum

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Just Before Dawn DVD

Buy DVD: Amazon.com

Bob Larkin Just Before Dawn Movie Poster Detail

Cast and characters:

George Kennedy … Roy McLean
Mike Kellin … Uncle Ty
Chris Lemmon … Jonathan
Gregg Henry … Warren
Deborah Benson … Constance
Ralph Seymour … Daniel
Katie Powell … Merry Cat Logan (as Kati Powell)
John Hunsaker … Mountain Twins
Charles Bartlett Charles Bartlett … Vachel
Jamie Rose … Megan
Hap Oslund … Pa Logan
Barbara Spencer … Ma Logan

Film locations:

Silver Falls State Park, Sublimity, Oregon

Fun facts:

Includes Blondie song ‘Heart of Glass’ played on the camper van radio.

Trailer:

YouTube reviews:

  

2 Comments on “JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981) Reviews and overview”

  1. I rewatched Just Before Dawn the other night for the first time since the early 80s and I still don’t get the “love”? It’s ok but I much prefer Lieberman’s more quirky Blue Sunshine and Squirm, despite their faults.

    BTW, I have been enjoying your site recently especially the pieces on Tigon and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Good stuff! Here’s a link for others to check out: https://0themastercylinder0.com/

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