The Oregon wilderness is the perfect locale for sightseeing, camping, hiking and inbreeding. Pitch a tent, pack a whistle, and heed the advice of the drunk locals: there are most definitely "demons" on this majestic mountain. Deer hunting season's over, but the season for hunting humans begins Just Before Dawn.
Jeff Lieberman's (Squirm, Blue Sunshine) ode to hillbilly horror is a taut and underrated thriller; a film that makes inbred kin like Wrong Turn live up to its title. Both films take their backwoods brawling into the trees, but Just Before Dawn reaches higher and has stronger footing. Lieberman's awareness of slasher movie tropes allow him to cleverly and consistently subvert his suspense scenes. For a film that is in many ways true to form, it actually has its share of legitimate surprise. Dual killers, admirably restrained slaughter, and an atmospheric sense of claustrophobia and dread that lingers amidst the wide open spaces.
Five friends climb the treacherous peaks looking for a weekend escape, but soon spend their weekend planning their escape. Composer Brad Fiedel's (The Terminator) essential, eerie and minimalist soundtrack sets the tone with a haunting, whistling echo calling from the mountainside, luring our naive young fodder into nature's nihilistic trap.
Essentially the film's villains, known only as The Mountain Twins (John Hunsaker), are mindless madmen. They're prone to kill based on nothing more than proximity. It's a marvel then that the film paints them as hefty, dumb country rednecks and still manages to give them a sense of force and fearfulness. It's a bit like doubling Jason Voorhees and adding a bit of incest to his genetic makeup. But as doomed traveler Warren (Gregg Henry) notes at the film's offset, "Where we're going is no summer camp." Camp Crystal Lake was always the place to go if you wanted to see teenagers getting laid, but even they'd frown on making it with your bunkmate if she was your sister. Just Before Dawn has fun with its psychopathic slice-and-dice formula, and these psychos seems to be having fun as well.
It's obvious that these young adults are inexperienced climbers, but you wouldn't necessarily know that they're inexperienced actors. The ill-fated friends are mostly likable, well performed, and less based in stereotypes than is the slasher movie custom; no meathead jock, and even the slutty best friend never sees the softer side of her sleeping bag. There's some nice coloring to the demented local color. Our final girl's arc isn't charted through her revelatory dialogue but the length of her pants and the volume of her hair. Connie (Deborah Benson) is the equivalent of Deliverance's Jon Voight in hot pants.
Connie's evolution is one the film's most confounding but classic elements. She's a strong-minded and experienced climber, fearful of disrupting the peaceful calm of the surrounding nature, yet who becomes immediately frazzled when faced with ominous rustlings and shadowy figures in the night. Connie stands numb of fear while her vain and freewheeling girlfriend is most willing to step up to their defense. Rattled and enraged with herself, Connie describes her moment of weakness, "Megan took the knife, she didn't just sit there.... But Megan! I mean I go camping all the time. I know how to pitch a tent, I know how to start a fire, and I couldn't pick up the knife. " Connie sees the error in her ways and soon enough she's decked out in Megan's Cadillac red nail polish, turning from schoolmarm to sexpot in a matter of minutes -- ready to do whatever it takes to survive the hours just before dawn. Her character makeover is complimented by her character's makeover.
Rather than sticking to the old adage where the horror heroine survives because she lacks the promiscuity of her pals, Connie sheds her reserved demeanor for something more sensual, but never does the film equate that with her downfall. For Connie her sexuality doesn't equal her death, rather her empowerment. Her technique for deep throating is ultimately what saves her life.
For a film that was devised as your run-of-the mill dead horny youngins' slasher flick, Just Before Dawn is decidedly less interested in punishing morality tales. Its focus is on simple suspense and savage survival; man (or be that ALL woman) versus nature. At odds with mother nature are five young people who've never had the chance to hone their primal instincts. And even more at odds are the inbred twins that overpopulate the region.