31 Screams in October, Vol. 3, #19: Just Before Dawn (1981)

Posted: October 21, 2016 in Movie Review
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19. Just Before Dawn (1981)

Director: Jeff Lieberman

Starring; Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Jamie Rose, Mike Kellin, George Kennedy

You know you’re in trouble with a movie advertised as being from the director of “Squirm,” a bad horror movie which became the subject of a very good episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Jeff Lieberman also wrote “The NeverEnding Story III,” one of the worst movies of the last quarter-century. With the bar set so incredibly low, it should come as some surprise that 1981’s “Just Before Dawn” is… inoffensive. As much of a predecessor of the “Wrong Turn” series as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Deliverance,” “Just Before Dawn” chooses the spooky woods of the Oregonian mountains as the setting for its violence.

A group of five friends drive by van up into the mountains. Along the way, they are met by forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy), who tries his best to warn them against traveling any further up the mountain. They get similar, less coherent warnings from Ty (Mike Kellin), who appears more drunk than frightened (actually, being frightened is what led to him getting drunk). We know it’s because he’s already witnessed one murder. Of course, old man Ty “doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about,” so the group presses on. No need to worry about a thing. Even the large number of identical twins that the group notices shouldn’t register as alarming in any way. Once the group gets where they are going, they meet a timid young girl whose father doesn’t take kindly to outsiders messing around anywhere near his piece of land. Still, the group acts as though nothing is unusual… that is, until Megan (Jamie Rose) notices an unidentifiable hand touching her while she and Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) are skinny dipping.

The group splits up to go exploring, soon after which Jonathan encounters the girl again. She’s frightened, and Jonathan should be too. The killer makes his presence felt when Jonathan is crossing the rope bridge. The killer cuts it down, and prevents Jonathan from being able to climb back onto the ledge, causing him to fall and be carried away by the current. Unaware anything is wrong, Megan and Daniel (Ralph Seymour) come across a church. The killer shows up again. Without his glasses on, Daniel mistakes the killer for Jonathan, his brother. Daniel pays for his mistake with his life when the killer stabs him. Megan sees this and attempts to hide inside the church. This is when the movie reveals its big secret: There are two killers, and they are identical twins. Unfortunately for Megan, there is no way for her to combat both of the twins on her own, and she is killed.

This leaves the macho Warren (Gregg Henry) and the virginal Connie (Deborah Benson) as the only members of the camping group still alive. They start to worry when they can’t find the others. Eventually, Jonathan’s body washes up. Ty finds Roy and tells him about the twins, which prompts Roy to go looking for the campers on horseback. Warren, in an attempt to retrieve the car keys from Jonathan’s body, leaves Connie by herself. At this time, Connie is attacked and chased up a tree by one of the twins. She’s just about to be killed when Roy shows up and shoots the twin dead. He Connie and Warren to start packing. Shortly afterwards, the other twin attacks them. Warren is incapacitated by a combination of a stab wound and his own fear, while Connie is nearly bear-hugged to death. Freeing an arm, she kills the twin by ramming her fist down his throat, effectively choking him to death.

Even though the woodsy setting typically works in these kinds of movies, “Just Before Dawn” isn’t as visually engaging as it should be. I’m not sure who or what is at fault there. Still, the film is not without its pluses. Gregg Henry shows signs of the winning personality that would make him appealing in movies like “Body Double,” “Payback” and “Slither” (to name but a few). There’s also a decent score from Brad Fiedel, whom everyone knows as the guy who created the theme from “Terminator.”

You’ll see worse horror movies (and indeed I have just this month), but you can do better than “Just Before Dawn.” It’s not interesting enough to warrant the cult status it has achieved, and yet not bad enough to provide sufficient material for people to riff on it. If you’re looking to see as many early 1980s slasher films as you can find, it’s worth being able to say you’ve seen it. Otherwise, pick something else.

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