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eighties horror you might have missed

Just Before Dawn (1981)

I love camping - even more than I love watching horror films! Several years ago my wife and I started going on regular camping trips, at least once a year, mainly on Mount Hood and in Eastern Oregon. Growing up, I camped sporadically, both with the Boy Scouts and on my own (in a dark-red dome tent, often curled up in a mummy bag). And all of that must be directly related to why Camping Horror is my favorite sub-genre of 80s horror. While Sleepaway Camp, The Burning and Friday the 13th are all favorites,  I enjoyed Just Before Dawn more than any of those. There is so much great stuff going on in this film, that it's hard for me to properly encapsulate it, but I'm going to try.

Just Before Dawn is the third film by Jeff Lieberman (Squirm, Blue Sunshine), who transformed an ailing screenplay about hillbilly snake handlers into a rather elaborate horror film heavily influenced by Deliverance. He insists that it's not a slasher, and I think that's at least partially true -  the film does a great job of creating a creepy atmosphere, and is less about trying to terrify or kill off a bunch of teenagers. There is some pretty good gore, though; it's used sparingly, mostly towards the end of the film and often cutting before a character is killed, allowing the viewer to infer the rest. At the end of the film there is a familiar scene in which the killer is finally stopped, and it's the best that I've ever encountered - seriously impressive. I really want to talk more about that, but I don't want to ruin it for you because when it happens it is both shocking and incredible. The character development is well done, with interesting details and nuances. It's apparent that the actors were spending a lot of time together during production, because their interaction with each other is very natural (in the director's commentary track, Lieberman points out that one of the characters "doesn't know he's in a horror movie" - I love that). There's also a few interesting things going on with the killer, his feral sister and the rest of their hillbilly family, but I'll just leave it at that.

The look of the film is excellent - it's got to be one of the best uses of a nature setting in the history of horror film. Forests and waterfalls are beautifully photographed, but still manage to be very creepy (due in part to the music and sound design). Cinematographer Joel King makes great use of natural light and provides some nice steadicam work. There is a  wonderful deep-zoom shot of the characters traveling behind a waterfall; later the killer slowly emerges from the same waterfall, held out-of-focus in the corner of the shot, so that you don't notice him right away. Another favorite scene is the final one, in which the camera follows a cloud of smoke drifting off into the forest, then fades to black. The people-less dawn and dusk shots used in the credits, and inserted throughout the film, reinforce the sense of isolation and the scale of the forest compared to the campers hiking through it. The then-modern Coleman tents they use look like orange geodesic domes in the middle of the woods; apparently Lieberman thought they looked like lunar lander modules, perfectly out-of-place. And what you see on the screen is actual hiking and camping; each day the actors traveled into the forest, oftentimes filming late into the night (the last confrontation scene was actually filmed "just before dawn"). When the RV comes to a halt in the first part of the film, that's what actually happened! The movie was filmed completely on location in Oregon, primarily in the forests of Silver Lake, near Salem. Due to the remote location, there was no way for Lieberman to view dailies - the first time he saw any footage was when he arrived back in NYC for post-production. The Silver Falls location (where the waterfall was filmed) can also be seen in a recent, big-budget teen vampire film.

Another thing I want to talk about here is the score by Brad Fiedel (The Terminator, Terminator 2), which is fantastic. Although Fiedel had scored several films prior to this, Just Before Dawn is the earliest work that I've heard from him (during the same year he also scored Night School, which we looked at recently).

The slow pan of the dawn sunrise in the opening credits is perfectly augmented by his arpeggiated synth and a creepy, bird-like whistle (played on a recorder), which becomes a recurring motif throughout the film, and ties into an emergency whistle that the campers use to signal each other. When the killer appears there is sometimes a very slight synth chord. Lieberman had noticed the use of the Moog synthesizer in Kubrick's work (presumably Clockwork Orange) and was excited to incorporate something similar into his own films. When Fiedel and Lieberman started the project, they were determined not to do a traditional horror score and instead decided on a more documentary-like approach, making generous use of natural sounds (cicadas, water, wind) and carefully "spotted" synth cues. They didn't want to tell the audience what was going to happen with the score, so they mostly put the music cues in places where things weren't happening and left them out when they were; Lieberman credits Hitchcock with the invention of this technique. Often the cicadas or other natural sounds drop out altogether right before the killer attacks, providing a very subtle hint that something bad is around the corner. The main "pulse" heard in the score was created on a Prophet 10, which Fiedel then blended together with multiple overdubs of his voice until the sound became thick and soupy. Live cello with digital delay and flute were also overdubbed to add additional texture. The end result is a set of thick drones and synth overlays which Fiedel uses to evoke a sense of "doom and foreboding". The score was certainly important to his career and he believes it's the reason that James Cameron hired him to create the score for The Terminator. And just so you know, he also performed the organ rock music that the campers dance to  in the forest (he refers to it as a bad Stones rip-off ). Unfortunately, additional music, short stings, and other stock horror cues were added by the production company prior to release, in order to appease foreign distributors (Lieberman didn't know this until he saw the completed film). I'm not sure how this was possible for a production of this size, but Blondie's Heart of Glass is playing on the RV's radio at the start of the film (it was a #1 single at the time, and was licensed for use in the soundtrack, which couldn't have been cheap).

The DVD "special edition" release of Just Before Dawn contains two discs, with director commentary by Jeff Lieberman and several other special features. Strangely, this release contains slightly edited versions of key gory scenes, so the only way to see the uncut theatrical version of the film is to rent it on VHS. Either way, I hope you'll see it and enjoy it as much as I did!