DECEMBER 2, 2012
The problem with trying to do something "heavy" in a slasher film (particularly one that features a group of kids camping in the woods) is that it's likely to be mistaken for sloppy writing, because the target audience probably isn't expecting that anyone working on the script actually gave a shit. So when the female lead in Just Before Dawn acts really weird and the male lead acts like a baby in its closing moments, it may come across as jarring and out of nowhere, but in reality it's actually a nice payoff for something established early on regarding their characters.
Worse, that's actually one of the few truly interesting things about the movie, so if you miss it you will be even less impressed than you might have been otherwise. I enjoyed it, but it's kind of by the numbers "slasher in the woods" flick, with a dearth of real scares or a high body count to boot. To be fair, it was made in May of 1980, right when Friday the 13th was coming out and kickstarting the slasher craze, but by the time it was RELEASED the audiences had already seen The Burning, Friday 1 and 2, Don't Go in the Woods, and probably some other woods-bound entries, and it doesn't add much to what we saw in those beyond a lower body count. With only four or five kills, I don't know how it was able to compete with the others, which were delivering twice that many, especially when it doesn't have a lot of scares either.
In fact the best scare comes rather early and is oddly ignored by the characters. Two of them are skinny dipping and horsing around, and then they separate a bit. The female then feels someone grab her from under the water, and she assumes it's her boyfriend... only to look up and see that he's actually swam back to shore. It's a great little "Oh shit!" moment, but she doesn't seem too bothered by it; she freaks out a bit and then forgets all about it, returning to dancing and goofing off just a few minutes later. The reveal that (spoiler for 30 year old movie ahead) there are two killers is also kind of a clunker - there are 2-3 scenes where it HAS to be twins before anyone says "there are killer twins in these woods" (paraphrasing, sadly). A couple other moments also feel a bit "off", as if director Jeff Lieberman forgot to film a line of connecting dialogue or a proper cutaway. Like the rope bridge scene - Lieberman actually has one of the kids almost fall off, but then skips ahead to everyone reaching the other side, rather than build on the idea that one (the nerdy one, too! i.e. the most likely to die early) might perish. On the commentary he says that he didn't know what he had until after the shoot was complete, as they didn't have the ability to screen dailies - I can't help but wonder if some of these hiccups were the direct result of this.
But it still works on the basic level that nearly all slashers from this era do, in that they've got that total lack of pretension or irony that mars many a modern slasher film, and of course a few future familiar faces among the crowd. I was delighted to see Ralph Seymour, a solid character actor from the 80s who would go on to appear in Rain Man (as Tom Cruise's car dealership employee) and Fletch (as Creasy the junkie), but the real surprise was Gregg Henry as the male hero. Henry has made a career out of playing slimy assholes in movies like Payback, and I don't know if I've ever actually seen him like he is here, sort of a typical alpha male horror hero (but not a douche) who spends most of the final reel terrified by his predicament. He also resembled Reggie Bannister a bit, so that was fun - it's a shame he didn't get to play more heroes, but he's such a great villain (or comic relief asshole, like his mayor in Slither) that it would almost seem wasteful to not exploit it.
It's also got George Kennedy in the obligatory "Acclaimed actor cashing a paycheck" role, as the local forest ranger who warns them not to go up there and then has to rescue them when they do anyway. He's got some fun quirks - his co-star is a horse, he talks to his plants, etc - which make up for the fact that he's kind of a shitty ranger. It seems these folks have been around for a while, why didn't he come across them before? He also knows that there are two killers, yet after he kills one of them he takes off, leaving the two survivors alone with the remaining killer. Granted, he's a ranger and not a real cop, but still - common sense, man.
Still, that sort of stuff is part of the fun. The thing that really kept me from loving it was that it seemed Lieberman couldn't decide if he was making a slasher or a Deliverance ripoff. The lengthy scenes of the kids exploring, crossing rope bridges, etc - they're fine, but they're not scary/suspenseful, and as a result some of the slasher scenes seem like afterthoughts - it doesn't quite mix as well as it should. I also wasn't sure if his idea to keep some of the scare scenes without any music was a successful one; I think this idea (he's not the first/last to try it) works best when it's specific to one sequence -doing it throughout just feels like they screwed something up. Then again maybe that's just me wanting to hear more of the score by future Terminator guru Brad Fiedel, who also composed the (intentionally?) terrible pop song the protagonists dance to during a campfire scene. Apparently never released on CD, it's certainly one of the more memorable sounding scores of that era, so it's a shame that there aren't many big "action" cues.
This decision (and the producer's decision to add some non-Fiedel generic cues to a few spots anyway) is discussed on the only major element on the DVD release's 2nd disc, which is billed as "interviews" but is actually a lengthy retrospective documentary featuring Lieberman, Fiedel, the screenwriter, a few of the actors (no Henry, dammit) and the producer. It's not the most eye-catching piece I've ever seen - most of it looks like it was shot with consumer cams and no audio (the guy who played the killer appears to be in a coffee shop, you can hear background chatter almost as clearly as him), but it's still an informative look at the film's genesis, production, and legacy. It even helped explain some of the film's odd storytelling issues - the original script had a heavy religious element (and another hero character!) that was dropped during pre-production.
And it's much better than the commentary by Lieberman, who repeats many of the anecdotes when not just sort of watching the movie or making ridiculous claims ("This could be from a Bergman film..." he says over a shot of a character looking upset). Word of advice for any DVD company putting together a retrospective anniversary release of a film - don't let the director sit by himself for a commentary. His memories are bound to be fuzzy, and it will just turn out boring. Put him with someone else from the movie, or at the very least a good moderator, to keep it lively and without a repeat of information.
The rest of the 2nd disc is given to trailers; two for Just Before Dawn itself ("How could they know... the heat of their bodies would be a magnet that would draw the TERROR to them?") and about a dozen for other Shriek Show releases. There's also a photo gallery, all of which is just taken from the film itself and is thus useless. It's kind of a ripoff for a two disc set, as they could easily ditch their self-serving trailers and fit everything on one disc, or disc 2 could have been a CD release of Fiedel's score! But hey, it got me through it all quicker than expected, so that's good.
As with The Burning, I probably would have liked this one more had I seen it as a younger man. I think it's better than that one, and there's a lot to admire here, but the wonky pacing and shrugged off reveals kind of left me cold, and it seems that a lot of what would have made it stick out more from the pack was dropped from the script. Someone "remake" this but film the original version!
What say you?