Just Before Dawn Is the Pick of the Week

When Halloween, John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece was released, it became the essential template on how to successfully create a thrill-ride, especially with a limited budget. It was such a game-changer that it spawned a decade of imitations, including its sequels and the Friday the 13th franchise. But the one so-called riproff that may be the best of them all (in my opinion) is Jeff Lieberman’s vastly underappreciated 1981 backwoods slasher, Just Before Dawn.

On the surface, it has that same unoriginal formula, where a group of fun-loving youths go off on a weekend of frolic, drinking, and skinny dipping on a remote piece of land that one of them has inherited. They’re given ominous warnings not to tread any further by a forest ranger (the late, great George Kennedy) and a drunk hunter (Mike Kellin) claiming to have seen his nephew murdered by “demons”. In typical fashion, the youths ignore the warnings, and head on anyway. They eventually live to regret it, especially when they’re picked off one-by-one by a hulking maniac with gruesome death of his mind.

That’s where the cliches end, because this is isn’t your run-of-the mill body count movie. Unusual for its time, it’s a slow burn with actual creepiness and stark intensity. But when shit goes down, it definitely delivers. Highly competent, with a great cast (especially final girl Deborah Benson-Wald as Constance), a good script, some disturbing but not graphic kills (the opening one is a doozy), impressive direction by Lieberman and an incredible twist (one that truly epitomizes the killer’s “two places at once” aspect) takes this one beyond its roots and into the realm of great horror.

The Blu-ray from Code Red is light with its special features, but it does include both the 91-uncut U.S. version and the 102-minute extended international cut; interviews with Gregg Henry (Warren), Chris Lemmon (Jonathan), Jamie Rose (Megan), and producer David Sheldon; vintage featurette with Lemmon, Rose, Sheldon, actor John Hunsaker (the killer) and screenwriter Mark Arywitz; and theatrical trailer. I 100% recommend this one-of-a-kind thriller that subverts the stereotypes of slasher flicks and should be a true must-have for any horror fanatic’s collection (assuming you don’t already own older releases).

Other releases:

Minding the Gap (Criterion): A documentary about three skateboarding youths trying to escape their harsh teenage lives in their Rust-Belt hometown. As they face adulthood, dark relevations surface and threaten to destroy their incredible friendship.

Satantango: Bela Terr’s celebrated nine-hour magnum opus centering on residents of a damaged collective farm, who see their plans turning bleak while plotting on a payment they’re about to receive, as a former co-worker they thought was dead, returns to the village.

The Freshman (1990): Matthew Broderick plays a student starting his first year of film school in New York City. After his belongings are stolen by a crook, he meets Carmine “Jimmy the Toucan” Sabatini (the great Marlon Brando), an “imposter” who looks just like a certain cinematic godfather.

Buried Alive (Kino): Tim Matheson plays Clint, a working man whose wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is having an affair with a doctor (William Atherton). They plot to kill him for his insurance. Unfortunately for them, Clint doesn’t die, and he escapes in his cheap wooden coffin, to get revenge.

Rituals (Scorpion Releasing): A super creepy Canadian thriller in the vein of Deliverance, centering on a group of five doctors going on a vacation in the wilderness. They find themselves stranded in the woods, and one of them decides to go back for help. They realize that something is obviously wrong when he doesn’t return, so they follow his trail. Their path is blocked by something or someone who doesn’t want them to leave alive.


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