Color, 1981, 90 / 102m.
Directed by Jeff Lieberman
Starring George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Gregg Henry, Chris Lemmon, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell, Jamie Rose
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Media Blasters (US R0 NTSC), CMV Laservision (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Odeon (UK R2 PAL)
Released at the height of the '80s slasher boom, Just Before Dawn marked the third feature for director Jeff Lieberman after the soon-to-be cult classics Squirm and Blue Sunshine. This time out he tackled a sort of combination of Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, taking a rough screenplay called The Last Ritual involving backwoods religious extremism and turning it into a depiction of man's animal nature. The end result was notably different from the butcher knife extravaganzas populating screens at the time, complete with a creepy and oppressively effective atmosphere that made it a hot collector's item among horror fans during the VHS days.
The set up is your usual scenario involving a van loaded with five teenagers heading off where it shouldn't in the woods, ignoring the warnings of local park ranger Roy McLean (Kennedy). We've already seen two men get butchered in an old church nearby, so it's obvious some of them won't be coming back home. Among the careless kids (and Blondie fans) are macho Warren (Body Double's Henry), his girlfriend Constance (Benson), comic relief Jonathan (Lemmon), slutty Megan (Rose), and obligatory dork Daniel (Seymour). As they camp out in the middle of nowhere, they keep catching glimpses of a mountain girl named Merry (Powell) who seems to be connected to others waiting with machetes in the darkness. As the youths split up, they find themselves being picked off one by one and forced to resort to savagery to survive.
What Just Before Dawn may lack in originality is more than made up for by its unusually solid performances and filmmaking skill, with evocative photography and a truly creepy score by Brad Fiedel (who went on to The Terminator and Fright Night) evoking shivers with Tangerine Dream-style electronics and eerie whistling. Many have also noted the film's influence on the new strain of hillbilly horror films since Wrong Turn, which owes more than a passing debt to this film's most memorable suspense sequence involving tree climbing. Seen today it's a film unlike anything you'd see today thanks to its spooky, handcrafted quality, setting it alongside Rituals and Southern Comfort as one of the best "terror in the wild" films around the turn of the decade.
The VHS release of Just Before Dawn from Paragon containing the uncensored theatrical version had a lot to do with building word of mouth for the film, which barely played on TV and made only a tiny blip when it played in theaters from indie distributor Picturmedia. It took an abnormally long time for a DVD to materialize, but one finally did in 2005 from Media Blasters (under its Shriek Show imprint) in a double-disc edition that turned out to be a very mixed blessing. The extras were spectacular, including a brisk audio commentary from Lieberman, a batch of trailers, a gallery, and a great 67-minute collection of interviews with the cast and crew. It's essential viewing for fans complete with candid remarks about the original script, speculation about the offscreen fate of one female character, and one of the funnier Deep Throat gags you'll run across. Unfortunately the transfer of the film itself was botched pretty severely courtesy of a drab, damaged 35mm print missing several moments of violence throughout the film. The deletions add up to less than a minute overall, but the effect on the film (which isn't particularly explicit in general) was easy to spot and highly destructive. On top of that the 1.85:1 matting looked strange and off center, often clipping characters uncomfortably at the eyebrows and looking more claustrophobic than the open matte VHS version.
Things got even weirder a year later when a UK edition surfaced from Odeon, initially an exclusive release for retailer Play.com. Though this one was also missing some of the same violent footage, it contained several additional minutes of dialogue and extended scenes indicating this was some kind of earlier cut prepared before the theatrical release. The running time extended by nine minutes in PAL, which obviously runs longer at normal film speed. Though splicy and highly unimpressive in visual terms, it was a surprising twist with no immediate explanation. Then a German DVD also came out, containing the first murder uncut but also suffering some of the same deletions as the Media Blasters disc. Various composite cuts started popping up on the fan circuit as the question of exactly which cut of the film still even existed anymore on film remained to be answered.
With Media Blasters fading out of the horror game, that meant a subsequent U.S. release had to turn up eventually, with Code Red stepping in for a limited edition Blu-ray in 2013 containing two cuts of the film. Most obviously, the framing is much better here with the more spacious 1.78:1 compositions feeling more accurate and aesthetically appealing throughout. The 90-minute theatrical version is indeed uncut with all of the gore scissored from previous DVDs, and the quality is excellent with an appearance that's several generations improved from past releases. Detail is improved significantly throughout, while colors are more natural and bright. Just click on the frame grab to the left and compare it to this same shot from the Shriek Show disc, and you'll get the idea. All told, fans should be very pleased and find that this will be the default viewing option from now on. The longer mystery cut is also included (described as an "extended cut, for overseas distribution" on the promotional material), also in HD but obviously several notches lower in quality compared to the main version. It's great to have included here though for completists and at least makes for an upgrade over the UK disc, especially since it now runs at the correct speed for a total time of 102 minutes; here's a screen shot from that variant to give you an idea. Two of the rather long theatrical trailers are also included. While the U.S. DVD will always have a place in any horror fan's library just for the extras, this is easily the option to go for when it comes to the film itself, a quirky and wildly satisfying backwoods shocker that keeps improving with age.
Reviewed on November 5, 2013.