“The Mountain don’t read.”
If you missed Just Before Dawn, you aren’t alone. Director Jeff Lieberman’s low budget masterpiece is a lost gem, a movie which somehow slipped by unnoticed while the general population flocked to see similar (and inferior) horror movies.
A combination of backwoods survival (Deliverance) and wilderness slasher (Friday the 13th, The Final Terror), Just Before Dawn follows the travels of five teenagers driving a mobile home into the forest, where one of the teens holds a deed on a piece of property. The forest ranger (played by George Kennedy) tries to warn them…
“The mountain don’t read.”
…and as you already guessed, the teens ignore him.
The movie opens with a particularly painful-looking murder involving a machete and a groin. If you shrug your shoulders and give up at this point, you will miss out on a truly creepy story. We don’t get a good look at the killer initially, even when we see him jump out of the woods and grab hold of the back of the teens’ mobile home.
The teens drive on, and as the trail narrows, they abandon the mobile home and hike into the deep woods, where they make camp near a waterfall.
Just Before Dawn begins to play with our senses at this point. As the teens engage in typical slasher movie hijinks (skinny-dipping, disco dancing), Constance, the most mature of the group, starts to get spooked. Something is moving in the woods, watching them. Her boyfriend assures her she is overreacting, just before a local family emerges from the trees and blows a hole in the teens’ boombox with a shotgun.
From this point on, the teens are aware they are not wanted in these woods. And as they trek toward their destination, a monstrous, shadowed figure follows close behind with his machete.
No new ground is broken in Just Before Dawn. This backwoods slasher simply excels where similar films failed to deliver genuine chills. Lieberman’s brilliant direction makes the most of his limited budget and the wilderness setting. From the sounds of nature to the way the sunlight plays through the dense overgrowth, one cannot help but feel they are a part of this immersive movie. Listen closely for a certain bird-like whistle which repeats throughout the movie. The sound is ethereal, almost unsettling. After watching Just Before Dawn in its entirety, decide for yourself the origin of the whistle.
A few truly frightening scenes stand above the rest. My favorite involves a girl skinny-dipping in a lake, backed beautifully by a picturesque waterfall. We see the killer move ethereally through the waterfall in the background and plunge into the water. Soon after, the girl feels a hand grab her underwater. She thinks it is her boyfriend, but we see her boyfriend emerge on the far shore. Suddenly the girl is alone in the lake, being touched by unseen hands and knowing her friends are not in the water with her. This is a classic urban legend-inspired scene, executed to perfection.
After some classic stalk, slash, and murder through the darkened forest, Just Before Dawn rushes toward a climatic ending which has to be seen to be believed. I won’t give away the big reveal about the killer or how the final girl fights back. I’ll just say that the scene will permanently burn itself onto the backs of your eyelids.
Yeah, I know. Nice visual.
Just Before Dawn goes in and out of print sporadically. At the time of this review, a two disc special edition is available through Amazon. Get it while you can, for this deep woods slasher comes with my highest recommendation.