Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part II): Just Before Dawn (1981) dir. Jeff Lieberman

Logline: Five young adults pack their gear in a van and head up into Oregon's scenic mountainous region to check out the property that one of their group, Warren (Greg Henry), has recently inherited. Unfortunately, the kids do not heed the warning to stay away, as given to them by kindly forest ranger Roy (George Kennedy) and his trusted horse, Agatha (Agatha the Horse). Thus, after crossing the rope bridge into terror, the group must contend with a maniacal killer (or is that killers?) in between setting up camp and skinny dipping.

Crime in the Past: Generations upon generations of inbreeding. Sure, sister-brother/child-parent coitus might not be against the "law" in their armpit of the woods, but it sure as heck turned out to be against nature. There are also faint intimations that the rural population of Oregon's mountain region has had disastrous run-ins with city folk before, though this possibility is not elaborated upon.

Bodycount: 6 souls are forced to "skadoot" from this mortal coil.

Themes/Moral Code: Being a backwoods slasher, the film tosses at us the standard issue urban vs. rural rigmarole. Warren, the leader of our gang of cool college city kids, is a "land baron" through family inheritance, and thus he and his companions believe they have a right to visit and occupy the forest and mountains for a weekend of fun. They don't stop to consider that the mountains might be home to any rural folk, and when they discover that this is the case, one of Warren's friends slyly remarks to him "Congrats, you're a landlord." See, these city slickers believe they can waltz into rural landscapes and take possession of them through use of their money and obscure legal system, and the film embarks on setting them straight (i.e. stabbing them). They'll learn that all the land deeds in the world don't mean squat if, as Sheriff Roy so eloquently puts it, "mountain can't read."

If you felt like stretching, you could also claim that the film has an environmentalist streak to it, arguing for the conservation of natural wilderness that is threatened by the encroachment of filthy, destructive human interests. For evidence, see the shot in which the boot belonging to one of the film's killers stomps down a piece of litter tossed onto the forest trail by the protagonists. Heavy stuff.

Killer's Motivation: Keep it in the family long enough, and that seed's gonna grow bad. Our killers are a pair of twins, and the products of inbreeding. (The birth of twins is a quite common occurrence among the mountain folk, we're told. We're left to assume why.) There's also the possibility that the twins are "devils" belonging to "the devil race," but what exactly that means isn't elaborated upon. Unlike their skittish but harmless peers, these hillbillies like to kill any and all intruders into their domain, for reasons unspecified. They're the strong, husky, mostly silent type. (Only mostly silent because they do frequently giggle out the raspy snicker of Muttley, Dick Dastardly's canine companion on Wacky Races [1968-1969].)

Though uncomplicated villains, they certainly are frightful when glimpsed as hulking, obscured figures in the background of various shots. Moreover, their dual identity lends itself to the film's best trick: the surprise revelation (about halfway through) that the killer we thought was flying solo had a wingman all along.

Final Girl: Our final girl for this particular jaunt into the madman-infested forest is Constance (Deborah Benson), Warren's girlfriend. She possesses many of the hallmarks of the archetypal final girl. She's attractive but plain and a bit tomboyish, maybe even prudish. (She's contrasted with the other female on the trip, Megan [Jamie Rose], who goes skinny dipping the first opportunity she receives (while Constance builds a campfire) and whines to the trees about the local wildlife thieving her makeup in the night.) She's a lover of animals. She's more responsible and cautious than her fellow travelers, wanting to abandon their weekend plans long before the others do. Finally, she's also the first to realize the actual danger of their collective situation.

But by the film's conclusion, Constance emerges as one of the more complicated final girls of the early slasher years. Like most final girls, Constance grows in strength and resilience against the killer, and she ultimately dispatches him through the reversal of symbolic phallic power. Here, this reversal is construed as a fist and upper arm straight down the killer's gullet, making her victory one of the most viscerally and physically powerful in the slasher's history. Yet, bizarrely, this adoption of stereotypically masculine strength comes at the height of her "femininity": this whole final sequence occurs immediately after Constance emerges from a tent wearing makeup for the first time in the film and dressed in Megan's booty-revealing shorts. Strangely, it seems as if Constance's more outwardly "masculine" characteristics were holding her back, making her, as she explains earlier in the film, helpless to save herself. Only by embracing her femininity is she able to become the Amazonian warrior she always was deep inside.

This is a total inversion of the final girl syndrome. Femininity is championed, and masculinity devalued. Where is Warren, Constance's cocky and superficially tough boyfriend, all throughout her fight with the surviving killer? He's lying on the ground in abject fear, cradling his wound and weeping, unable or unwilling to assist while his girlfriend completes the manly heroic task. After the conflict has ended, Warren (still crying and moaning uncontrollably) stumbles into her as she stands dazed but victorious over her vanquished foe. To her great credit, she doesn't hug him back.

Evaluation: Jeff Lieberman-- not the roboticist, of course, but the (hmm) auteur behind Squirm (1976) and Blue Sunshine (1978)-- created in 1981 what is quite possibly the finest backwoods slasher outside of the obvious prestige of the sub-subgenre's granddaddy, Deliverance (1972). Just Before Dawn isn't highly regarded by slasher connoisseurs because of its gargantuan body count or gnarly practical gore effects. The cast of victims is small, the methods of dispatching them far from outlandish, and the bloodshed minimal (though the film does have one particularly memorable piece of effects work in its final moments. Hint: gulp). Nor is the film esteemed because of wacky plot developments or a colorful cast of bit characters (though the presence of George Kennedy, with his horse Agatha and his amateur green thumb, doesn't hurt).

Rather, what sets Just Before Dawn apart from dopier backwoods fare like The Prey (1984), Don't Go in the Woods... Alone! (1981), and The Final Terror (1983) is its emphasis on capital "A" Atmosphere. Employing the classic (though rarely [successfully] imitated) Halloween (1978) style, tension and suspense dominate Lieberman's film, leaving the murders as punctuation marks rather than film-justifying setpieces. Instead, the film revels in agonizingly protracted chases through the forest and subtle, blink-and-miss glimpses of our lurking menace(s) at the sides of the frame. And speaking of John Carpenter, keep your ears perked for those pulsating Carpenter-esque synth chords that ring off the film's mountains. And speaking of those mountains, let's not neglect to note that Just Before Dawn is a vibrantly lensed film, despite its requisite small budget, thanks to the location shooting in Oregon's gorgeous Silver Falls State Park. Few slasher films have the means or access to fill their frames with to majestic waterfalls, and so they settle for filling them with exposed breasts instead. Aware of its advantage, Just Before Dawn gives you both in the same shot.


  1. I remember being super skeptical when Just Before Dawn hit DVD. I can't say for sure why but I was really hesitant to give it a chance (probably just worried that it would be disappointing). When I finally sat down with the film, I was blown away. It's just a great movie. Your writeup makes me look forward to watching it again. Nice work, duder.

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