Review Date: November 19, 2005
Released by: Shriek Show
Release date: 7/26/2005
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
“Horror films are subversive,” says director Jeff Lieberman. “The things that stay with you in a horror movie are not the blood and guts…it’s the psychology.” With his two 1976 efforts, Squirm
and Blue Sunshine
, Lieberman proved that he was a subversive director worth taking notice. Blue Sunshine
suggested that behind the supposedly liberating drug culture there was a latent attempt at political control. Squirm
was subversive too, in the way it questioned technological progress and elecricity’s impact on ecology. Schooled in cinema by European art films like those of Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut, Lieberman was one of the rare genre directors to inject in his films art-house notions of compositions and subject matter.
It took half a decade for Lieberman to follow up his first two films, but then came the backwoods slasher, Just Before Dawn
. On the surface it seems like Friday the 13th
meets The Hills Have Eyes
, but deep down John Leiberman has more cerebral fish to fry. Long left in the dark on video shelves, the sun has finally risen on this obscure slasher thanks to Shriek Show. Let’s hike through the Dawn.
A couple campers go hiking in the deep Oregan wilderness. They stumble upon a church, and before they even count their blessings, a man can be seen in the rafters. Ty (Mike Kellin
from Sleepaway Camp
) goes outside to check it out, and before he sees anything, he hears the screams of his friend. Knifed in the crotch, his friend screams in agony, and Ty takes off before he meets a similar fate. As he runs from the church, all that can be seen from a distance is a burly man in plaid with an orange toque. In his hand is a machete, and on his mind is death. Ty may be gone, but five naïve campers are on their way.
A group of teenagers head out to the same Oregan wilderness to camp out on one of the teen’s newly-inherited pieces of land. As they drive out in their camper, they are stopped by wilderness ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy
). “There’s no campsite up there,” he warns, and cautions them from going any further. Slasher movie convention of course dictates the teens do otherwise, so they venture on deeper into the woods. They have to climb over a rickety rope bridge, roll down a steep tree, and hike through cold water, but none of this compares to the torture that awaits them.
There is a hillbilly family that lives deep in those woods, and it turns out that the portly killer with the orange toque is one of Ma and Pa Logan’s offspring. There is also a young girl, Merry Cat (Katie Powell
), who stumbles upon the campers in the wilderness one afternoon. She tells her parents, and at her father’s discretion they “raise the devil”. The son lumbers through the woods picking each camper off one by one, but in the dark lies many secrets, and the Logan family has many. The only question is, will anyone live to tell those dark secrets?
Just Before Dawn
begins just like any other slasher would. It’s routine; the campers head into the woods and are killed. The killer grunts in the shadows, and the ambience of the crickets sets the tone. The first thirty minutes are very forgettable. But then, the movie starts to get under your skin. Brad Fiedel’s synth rumblings start to underpin and foreshadow an ominous fate for the characters. We knew that already, but his score makes us feel it. Then Lieberman wins us over with some Hitchockian suspense scenes, like the hand in the water turning out not to be the boyfriend’s hand, but actually the killer’s. But it’s only at the end that you realize the full intent of Lieberman’s storytelling gift. He works on you subversively, setting up the conventions and then slowly drifting astray from them.
Lieberman’s movies will never have the weight that film’s from his contemporaries do. Deliverance
, The 400 Blows
, and Persona
, are all much better films. Yet, Lieberman has a talent of taking influences from the greats and melding them within his own vision. “The Bergman Shot” for instance, which Lieberman refers to in the commentary as the scene where two of the campers look over at a waterfall in-between them. The formal composition is implicitly arty, yet it works within his narrative to suggest the power of nature. The way it splits the male and female characters dead center on the screen also suggests the split between man and woman, weak and powerful. Slasher movies don’t usually lend to analysis that weighty, but Lieberman invites us to think deeper with his artful compositions and his thoughtful script. There is plenty going on beneath the surface here, and Lieberman tells it with a style used lovingly from the Europeans.
The latent theme that Lieberman coaxes out of his story throughout is that of the split between civilized and uncivilized. Taken at face value, this theme would seem derivative of Deliverance
, Straw Dogs
, or any other machismo-deconstructed film before it. Lieberman takes a much more subtle path at the same conclusion. Instead of making it about the men, leaving the women like Susan George or Belinda Beatty in shallow subordinate roles, Lieberman aims to make the woman his focus in Just Before Dawn
. This is fitting, since the Final Girl is basically a slasher standard. But Lieberman devotes the entire film to his principal actress, not the final act like most slasher films.
The whole movie is about Constance (Deborah Benson
) and how she starts the film precarious and subservient, and ends it proud and powerful. At the start it is made clear that she is totally dependent on the direction and comfort of her boyfriend. She follows him around, and does whatever he asks her. When she is scared by a couple of her prankster friends, she cries to her boyfriend. “I’m hopeless” she sobs, “I couldn’t even pickup the knife.” It is from this moment that she realizes her subservient role in society has made her a slave to masculinity and one unable to deal with issues on her own. In her dressed down appearance and inhibited social conduct she notices too that she never stands out like her other flirtatious friends. As she starts to become aware of her weak and inhibited status she begins to make changes to assert herself throughout the film.
It is here that makeup becomes a major theme in identity transformation. Her outgoing friend used it to feel confident about herself, and even the primitive Merry Cat clumsily applies it on her face in an attempt to pickup one of the male campers. It isn’t until Constance applies it in the final unsettling act that the metaphor comes through. It is a transformative device, and Constance is unable to step up and be herself until she separates herself from her old, subservient identity. Her boyfriend finally takes notice, and immediately remarks on her changed physique. She seems stronger, and is stronger. Her boyfriend cowers away in the finale, but she steps up and takes the initiative that eluded her when she was scared earlier in the fool. Her makeup exhibits the change she undergoes as the uncivilized woods shapes her into a stronger, standalone woman.
Finding your identity is a major aspect of Ingmar Bergman’s films, just as the changing roles of power is a major element of the Jon Voight/Burt Reynolds relationship in Deliverance
. Lieberman builds on this and transplants it into the slasher genre, making Constance one of the most developed characters the genre has ever seen. Constance undergoes a complete arc, and while doing so goes against the makings of the genre. In slasher films, the Final Girl fights back because she has no other choice, and because the man is rendered helpless. Here, it is Constance’s choice earlier on in the film to be assertive, she chooses her destiny well before the killer forces it upon her. Not only that, but the interesting thing is how weak Lieberman makes his male campers. The leader early on gets his authority trumped when the group decides to brave it down the hill on their own. Lieberman’s attack on masculinity doesn’t reach its zenith until the finale though, when the man cries and cowers in the face of the killer. It is Constance who must step up, sticking the killer with the closest thing to a phallus she has: her fist. The final shot removes any doubt we had about Lieberman’s opinion on women from the start of the picture, where George Kennedy’s character belittlingly implied that women can’t hold their own camping. Constance holds her own and more so, she becomes the strength of the picture.
Just Before Dawn
is not a great movie, but for it’s genre, it’s a smart one. Too much of it seems routine, and the deaths never really register with the kind of coverage or power they should. Gore is kept minimal, too minimal in most cases, and this keeps the movie from ever being visceral. That might just be the point though, to keep our emotions away in order to work on our minds. What is on screen seems standard, but what is happening behind it, the character arcs and the subversive notions of identity, leave a more than memorable mark. Jeff Lieberman is a guy that sneaks up on you. I was willing to write the movie off midway through, but seeing his previous movies I trusted him. After the powerful climax, I remembered why. He takes you on the unconventional path and gets unconventional answers, but the journey is always well worth it.
|Paragon VHS||Shriek Show DVD|
Shriek Show presents the film in an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer, and the film has unfortunately seen better days. Those better days were not on video however, as the film was a muddy messy on the days of VHS. The transfers on VHS were so dark even the day scenes were tough to see. So thankfully this transfer is much lighter, and there is much more color rendition in the darker scenes. What hasn’t changed though, is incessant print damage that riddles the print throughout, with scratch lines almost always composing the sides of the frame. There is dirt, dust and cigarette burns throughout. The transfer is also soft and lacking in clarity, which is particularly frustrating during the night scenes. Thankfully, there is enough visibility in the night scenes to discern what is going on (another improvement over VHS) but it still isn’t ideal. Colors are also faded and inconsistent, with the tree greens shifting color sometimes between single shots. Without context this is a poor transfer, but taken into account the history of the film and how it has looked on previous video incarnations, this is much better than it could have been.
Although it is advertised as a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, the film sounds little more than a glorified mono track. There are a few scenes that widen up the sound stage early on, namely a car explosion and the crashing of a waterfall. The explosion just comes across as gimmicky though, seeming forced into the other speakers rather than emerging from them naturally. The audio elements are slightly muffled, which makes creating a convincing surround track a chore right from the start. The dialogue is never overwhelmed by music, but considering Brad Fiedel’s minimalist compositions, this comes with little surprise. The audio is better than the video, for sure, but as a 5.1 track it’s pretty unsatisfying.
Initially, this seems like a needless two-disc set. All that is on the first disc is a commentary, while the second disc is filled with trailers, a photo gallery and the modestly labeled “cast and crew interviews”. What the latter supplement doesn’t tell you however, is that it runs a hearty 67 minutes. Shriek Show is no stranger to longer documentaries, their Zombi 2
documentary runs just as long. But unlike the others I’ve seen, this one has great organization and a lot of great content. The subject matter was focused, and flowed from one topic to another flawlessly. It starts off great, with Jeff Lieberman talking about the subversive nature of horror, and quickly segues into the script with comments from Mark Arywitz. One thing you can trust with Lieberman, is that he will tell it to you as it is, and he doesn’t hold back in saying that the original script is one of the worst he ever read. Despite the supposed incompetence of his script, Arywitz still offers a lot of interesting insight into his original story, and how it differs greatly from the finished film.
The doc then moves onto anecdotes from the actors, with Jamie Rose, Chris Lemmon and John Hunsaker all talking about their roles and their experiences on the film. The cast got along exceptionally well on set – too well as Lieberman says, since he had to constantly deal with their late night partying and early morning hangovers. Producer David Sheldon offers some great anecdotes on the set, like when he yelled “Let there be light!” and the whole set suddenly lit up. Brad Fiedel is articulate in talking about scoring the picture, and Lieberman backs him up in explaining how they were aiming at creating a different sort of sound for the film. The documentary then goes on to cover other things, like the stunts to the effects work, and remains captivating throughout. It is right up there with the documentaries on the Halloween
and Friday the 13th
discs as the best documentary ever done for a slasher film.
Jeff Lieberman gave a great commentary for Synapse’s Blue Sunshine
disc, and he gives a solid one here too. The only major problem is that there is plenty of overlap between the extensive documentary and the commentary, but there is still plenty of good insight to be had from hearing Lieberman speak as the film rolls. One of the most interesting things he mentions throughout the commentary is the fact that he hasn’t ever seen The Hills Have Eyes
or “The Texas Chainsaw Murders” (as he calls it). This makes it tough for detractors to call the film derivative since he hasn’t seen either. He does openly admit to riffing on Deliverance
though, no question. He is a good, honest speaker, and offers a strong mix of anecdotes, insights and tips on low budget filmmaking that any film fan should enjoy.
The second disc is rounded off with a photo gallery and a plethora of trailers. We get four trailer menus, the first for the film’s trailers, one for Shriek Show films, one for Fangoria films and the last for Special Movie Promos. There are two trailers for Just Before Dawn
, and the first one is incredibly effective in representing the film’s ominous mood. Then there are Shriek Show trailers for Flesh For the Best
, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin
, Touch of Death
and the still unreleased Anthropophagus
. The Anthropophagus
trailer is most interesting, since afterwards it shows a trailer for the video release of it called The Grim Reaper
, trying to pass the film off as a slasher. The Fangoria trailers are Choking Hazard
, Rojo Sangre
, Hiruko the Goblin
, and Plaga Zombie
. Lastly, the special movie promos are for Shadow: Dead Riot
|Paragon VHS||Shriek Show DVD|
It should also be noted that this release of Just Before Dawn
unfortunately has a few small cuts. There isn’t much gore to begin with, but the little gore there is, namely the groin stab at the start, is marginally shortened. In the uncut Paragon VHS release, you see the knife slowly being pulled out from his groin as the victim withers in pain. On the DVD however, it cuts about three seconds sooner. Not a big difference, but a gripe nonetheless.
Just Before Dawn
is a smart little backwoods slasher that starts off modestly but slowly builds to a powerful and off-kilter climax. Like Jeff Lieberman’s other horror movies, it is a meld between commercial horror and European art-house, with a little more of the former. The video quality is pretty dodgy, but far better than the indecipherable video incarnations the film has received. The sound is average, but don’t be fooled by the 5.1 packaging. Be fooled by the “Cast and Crew Interviews” though. In reality, it is a very long and very good look into the making of the film, and along with the commentary amounts for a great set for the price involved. The fact that the opening murder is slightly cut is a drawback, but gore has never been the driving aspect of Jeff Lieberman’s films anyway. If you liked Wrong Turn
(yes, I used the two in the same sentence) then you’ll no doubt enjoy this obscure sleeper.
Movie - B
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B-
Supplements - A-
- Running time - 1 hour 30 minutes
- Rated R
- 2 Discs
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English mono
- Commentary with director Jeff Lieberman
- "Just Before Dawn: Lions, Tigers & Inbred Twins" documentary
- Photo gallery
- Theatrical trailers
- Additional trailers