Just Before Dawn – Backwoods Horror

Just Before Dawn artwork

“The Mountain don’t read.”

You watched Halloween, Deliverance, and Friday the 13th. You probably think you know your 1970s and 1980s horror movies, don’t you? But have you ever seen Just Before Dawn (1980)?

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…

Just Before Dawn

“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.

Just Before Dawn Waterfall scene

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” vs. “Friday the 13th”: A Comparative Study of Slasher Classics

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw an explosion of slasher films, a sub-genre of horror that focuses on a serial killer who typically uses bladed tools to dispatch a series of victims. Two notable entries from this era are “Just Before Dawn” (1981) and “Friday the 13th” (1980). While they share certain thematic elements common to the slasher genre, each offers a unique take on the fear of being hunted.

Jason Vorhees in a forest

Setting and Atmosphere:

Just Before Dawn: The film is set in the picturesque yet treacherous wilderness of a national forest. The natural beauty juxtaposed with impending doom creates a unique tension. The isolation of the wilderness amplifies the feeling of vulnerability.

Friday the 13th: The setting is the infamous Camp Crystal Lake. The concept of a summer camp, which is typically associated with fun and innocence, being turned into a place of horror adds to the film’s disturbing nature. The lake and its surrounding areas become characters in their own right, concealing the lurking menace of the killer.

The Antagonist:

Just Before Dawn: The movie introduces inbred mountain twins who become the primary antagonists. Their primal nature and unfamiliarity with modern civilization make them unpredictable and terrifying.

Friday the 13th: While the franchise is most known for Jason Voorhees, it’s his mother, Pamela Voorhees, who is the original killer in the first movie. Her motivation stems from revenge over the drowning of her son due to the negligence of camp counselors, introducing a tragic backstory that adds depth to her character.

Themes and Motifs:

Just Before Dawn: One of the central themes is the city vs. rural divide. The protagonists, urban folks, venture into unfamiliar territory and pay the price for their arrogance and dismissiveness towards the local warnings.

Friday the 13th: The movie delves into the themes of revenge and the consequences of past actions. The negligence that resulted in Jason’s death comes back to haunt a new group of camp counselors.

Reception and Legacy:

Just Before Dawn: While not as commercially successful as some of its contemporaries, the film has garnered a cult following over the years. It’s often praised for its atmospheric tension and the unsettling use of natural beauty as a backdrop for horror.

Friday the 13th: It spawned one of the most successful horror franchises in film history. Despite mixed critical reception for the first film, its commercial success ensured numerous sequels, spin-offs, and even a crossover film. Jason Voorhees, with his hockey mask and machete, has become one of the most iconic figures in horror cinema.

Both “Just Before Dawn” and “Friday the 13th” epitomize the slasher genre’s golden age, relying on isolated settings, relentless killers, and rising body counts. While “Friday the 13th” leans more into the campy and iconic aspects of the genre, “Just Before Dawn” offers a more atmospheric and understated horror experience. Each film, in its own right, showcases different facets of the slasher genre, ensuring their places in the annals of horror cinema.

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.

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