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Case Number 26853: Small Claims Court

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Just Before Dawn (1981)

Code Red // 1981 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // January 17th, 2014

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker's dishes were disgusting just before Dawn...now, he can see himself in the plates!

The Charge

Will anyone survive those hours…JUST BEFORE DAWN?

The Case

Campers frolic in the woods before being decimated by inbred hillbillies in this Deliverance/The Hills Have Eyes hybrid by the guy who gave us Blue Sunshine.

In Just Before Dawn, five "young people"—mercifully, these near-30s aren't touted as high schoolers—head up to a remote area in some mountains to do a little hiking, a bit of camping, and whatever else "young people" do in the mountains. But before we even meet them, we know that this trip is doomed: a drunken backwoodsy guy has just watched as his nephew was brutalized and killed by—well, what he calls a "demon." This opening bit is helped greatly by the guy playing the drunken, backwoodsy guy: the great character actor and NY stage vet Mike Kellin, who starred in the original production of David Mamet's American Buffalo and appeared in such films as Midnight Express and The Boston Strangler. In the youth-happy slasher genre, having a veteran talent contribute anything even remotely substantial to a film is a plus.

Anyway, the young folks are warned away by the backwoodsy drunk, but as is the wont of doomed lunkheads, pay him no mind. They are also warned away a forest ranger, played by none other than the great character actor George Kennedy (Airport). Seeing these more mature, award-winning actors early on gave me a little hope that maybe Just Before Dawn would offer a bit more than the usual slice-n-dice. It did, but not as much as I'd hoped.

Of course, in 1981, the slasher genre was still pretty young, so expectations were different; rampaging hillbillies, on the other hand, were already becoming a cinematic staple, represented in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Mother's Day, God's Bloody Acre, I Spit on Your Grave, Tourist Trap, and Two Thousand Maniacs, among others. So there was a bar, of sorts, set, and Just Before Dawn ultimately meets the standards nicely.

Just Before Dawn is a sturdy little thriller that doesn't mess with the formula. Its virtues are its taut direction, fun performances, and some beautiful location shooting in Oregon. The former is highlighted here in Code Red's stunning restoration. According to their Web site, the film was "painstakingly restored from the original 35mm internegative," and it is absolutely a job well done. It's also important, since the cinematography is such an integral part of this film's success; let's face it, 30-and-change-year-old, low-budget horror movies aren't known for looking all that good, and this one looks great.

Director Jeff Lieberman offers an eerie tale with a fair share of suspense. He gives his actors room to build their characters, and they come through. Unlike cast members from many low-budget films from the time, most of these actors—including Gregg Henry (Body Double), Chris Lemmon (Thunder in Paradise) and Jamie Rose (Chopper Chicks in Zombietown)—are still working.

There's quite a bit of violence, punctuated nicely with suspense. The gore effects are serviceable—we rarely see the blade enter the body—but there's a bravura kill scene at the end. All in all, this is a satisfying film, particularly for fans of the genre.

Besides trailers, the sole special feature on this edition is an extended cut, which runs about 10 minutes longer than the other cut. The IMDb listing presents a number of "Alternate Versions" of the film, and the Code Red Web site lists this as being for overseas distribution. I'm guessing this is the cut from a 2006 UK release, as per IMDb. Unlike the shorter cut, this one looks like hell, as though it had been sourced from a tape master. While I didn't watch it all the way through, there doesn't seem to be any notable differences in the gore scenes, so near as I can tell, this wouldn't qualify as some kind of hidden, unrated version.

A cool little kill flick that should be better remembered. Nice job, Code Red!

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: Code Red
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Cult
• Horror
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Extended Cut
• Trailer


• IMDb

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