About once a month I'll go through the Amazon DVD `Hot New Releases' section (`Hot New Releases' basically means any DVD that's scheduled to be released and for sale on Amazon, sometimes hot, mostly not) and see what's on the horizon...and that's where I found Just Before Dawn (1981)...Amazon states it was released in 1982, while The Internet Movie Database says 1981. I had never heard of the movie (perhaps because it got lost in the morass of horror films to come out in the early 80s), but I do dig on unearthing cinematic nuggets of joy that find their way to DVD...more often than not what I end up unearthing is the celluloid equivalent of a cow flop (like Dawn of the Mummy, which was also released in 1981), but when I do come across something truly decent, like this film, it makes up (to some extent) for a lot of my mucking about in the proverbial swill. Directed by Jeff Lieberman (Blue Sunshine, Squirm), the film features Gregg Henry (Payback), Chris `son of Jack' Lemmon (Wishmaster), Deborah Benson (Mutant on the Bounty), Ralph Seymour (Meatballs Part II), Jamie Rose (Chopper Chicks in Zombietown), Mike Kellin (Freebie and the Bean), and Hollywood veteran (also WWII veteran) George `Dragline' Kennedy (The Dirty Dozen, Cool Hand Luke, Airport 1975).
The film opens on a couple of hunters milling about in what appears to be an unused, dilapidated church deep in the woods. The younger of the two seems overly interested in procuring one of the antique lighting fixtures (a candle holder) as a gift for his wife (I guess she's easy to please), while the other, older man (Kellin) is more interested in getting his drink on and pretending to be a preacher...until he sees someone outside and decides to check it out...smart move, as the man still inside the church ends up getting a vasectomy via a machete (a machectomy?). The older man doesn't see this, but given the screaming and the appearance of a lumbering, slightly bestial looking character exiting from the church, he gets a good idea of what happened and takes off running. Then we cut to five young people in an RV, driving up the mountain to do a little camping, climbing and checking out of the area (apparently one of them actually inherited the mountain, as he keeps whipping his deed out, which means little to the local residents). The group encounters the local forestry man Roy McLean (Kennedy), and he issues an indiscriminate warning which they fail to heed, and keep on trucking up the dirt roads. Along the way they encounter the older, still alive hunter, who also warns them vigorously, but, as with the forestry man, they pay no mind...perhaps the third time would have been the charm, but guess what, there will be no such warning, as the `demon' (as the inbred locals call him) is king of this hill, and has little patience for interlopers (especially smart alecky city types).
First of all, can anyone who has seen this film tell me what George Kennedy's character was doing when we first saw him? He was in his modest outpost/home, and appeared to be involved in bizarre Frankenstein experiment in terms of splicing various types of plant life to each other (looked like a banzai tree and a maple leaf)...anyhoo...I really did enjoy this movie, as I think it had a lot going for it in terms of a talented director, and a particularly strong and experienced cast, both of which ended up elevating this slightly above much of the slasher/killer horror dreck that came out in the early 80s. There's a strong sense of flow throughout the story, like things are continuously moving forward, perhaps slowly at times, but nonetheless forward (we don't get a good look at the killer until about 40 minutes into the film, but his presence is felt throughout)...in terms of a slasher film the violence is relatively minimal, but what of it there is felt effective...others have stated this DVD release features some cuts (particularly in the opening sequence with the groinectomy), but this is the first time I've seen the film, so I'd have to take their word for it...if this is true (why would they lie?), then that's too bad, as I'd prefer to see a film as it was originally intended released, if possible. One of the many aspects I really liked was the usage of the Oregon mountains as a backdrop, as they provided some striking visuals and an interesting and spooky setting for the story. Some of the supporting characters were kinda one-dimensional (the hillbilly family, for example), but the more prominent characters made up for this, especially in terms of the actors being able to infuse very natural qualities within their characters. Also, George Kennedy's character was actually an effective one...generally in these types of films, the come late in the game law enforcement types (okay, he was a forest ranger) are usually lame duck fodder material whose only purpose is to extend the body count, but that's not the case here. Another aspect I really liked was the revelation of the killer (perhaps one of the best scenes in the film), as it wasn't overblown but done in a subtle manner...I pretty much guessed what was going on before it was revealed, but that didn't make it any less effective (a couple of hints were dropped earlier in the film, but nothing overtly obvious). I also appreciated the sort of transference of power near the end, where the seemingly weakest member of the group steps up, while the strongest member cowers in fear and shock. As far as the characters, did anyone else who saw this film think Warren (Henry) was whipped? And that Megan (Rose) sure was a flirty girl...with nice bazooms that we get to see as she takes a topless swim with her boyfriend Jonathan (Lemmon)...a little nekkidness never hurts...too bad Connie (Benson) didn't get in on that action, but she did don some Daisy Duke shorts later on in the film, and wore them very well (nice cheeks). I thought the ending odd, as Connie gave new meaning to the term `hand job'...I certainly didn't see that coming...
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) picture on this Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD release is slightly sub-par...there's obvious wear throughout (dirt, lines, marred frames) and the colors sometimes flat, but it is watchable. I wasn't expecting a pristine copy, but I did feel they could have cleaned it up a bit. Regardless, I do appreciate someone taking the time to release this gem to DVD. The audio came through alright, but the claim of 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound seemed dubious...also included is the original mono audio track. There are some special features, most on the 2nd DVD, including a commentary track by director Jeff Lieberman, cast and crew interviews (67:06), a photo gallery, and a whole mess of trailers, including Flesh for the Beast (2003), Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971), Touch of Death (1961), Anthropophagus (2002), Choking Hazard (2004), Rojo sangre (2004), Hiruko the Goblin (1990), Plaga Zombie (1997), Shadow: Dead Riot (2005), and Death Trance (2005). All in all a mediocre release of a great film...4 stars for the film, 2 for the release, 3 stars overall.