Just Before Dawn (Blu-ray)
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JUST BEFORE DAWN Beloved cult filmmaker Jeff Lieberman already horrified audiences across the world with his killer-worm epic SQUIRM (1976) but he arguably outdid himself with JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981) one of the most popular slasher classics to ever tear up the inside of a grindhouse movie theatre. In this powerful bout of plasma splashing cinema, a group of teenage vacationers opt for an ill-advised hike around the beautiful national forests of Oregon. But Lieberman is quick to show that backwoods baddies do not just exist in the American South - they can also be found preying on campers in the supposedly more liberal (and safe) West Coast too!! With machete massacres galore, masked maniacs on the prowl and plenty of skinny dipping and flesh ripping to enjoy, JUST BEFORE DAWN is a horror masterpiece that is finally available in the UK, fully remastered in HD. Starring George Kennedy (THE NAKED GUN) and Chris Lemmon (WISHMASTER), 88 Films is proud to present one of the most sublime and stylish slice and dice creepers ever concocted!
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Historically the early 1980's was the golden age of the slasher movie especially for those in the "madmen of the wilderness" vein with countless riffs on Friday the 13th flooding the then over saturated market. Some such as "The Burning" and the aptly titled "Madman" were absolute classics destined to become genre favourites for decades to come whilst others outstayed their welcome even for their brief theatrical runs or limited VHS releases. Entering the overcrowded fray was Jeff Lieberman's now iconic Just Before Dawn, a movie which according to it's director took more of an influence from John Boorman's hillbilly survival flick "Deliverance" over it's two a penny stalk and slash brethren and as such remains a far more interesting picture. In the greatest slasher movie tradition we are introduced to our band of happy campers as they manoeuvre their RV up a tight mountain pass. As Blondie's "Heart of Glass" blasts through the speakers we understand that this particular group are en-route to a isolated patch of land that Warren (Gregg Henry) a member of their group has inherited. Along the way they pass the home of Forest Ranger Roy McLean (the legendary George Kennedy) a world weary sort who advises them to turn around and not venture into the mountains. Of course they ignore his pleas even after a delirious and visibly traumatised trapper whom we have already encountered in the vicious prologue warns them there are demons back there in the woods. Managing to inadvertently rile a hick forest dwelling family with their skinny dipping exploits, drunken pranks and loud music the quintet also attract the interest of a pair of heavyset, inbred machete wielding rednecks who gradually pick off the naive vacationists. With only Forest Ranger Roy McLean and his trusty steed Agatha aware of their whereabouts the fight for survival is on for the group with the mammoth sized maniacs making sure know one will leave the mountain alive.
To many Just Before Dawn may just sound like yet another title in a long line of slasher movies and quintessentially it is. But look beyond the usual stalk and slash clichés and you will find a beautifully crafted movie with a surprisingly strong cast and evocative score by the fantastic Brad Fiedel which combined have cemented it's reputation as one of the best in the sub genre. Creating a believable atmosphere of being lost miles from civilization with little chance of rescue whilst being pursued by an unseen murderous assailant appears to be director Jeff Lieberman's main aim and watching Just Before Dawn now over 35 years after completion this feat was wholeheartedly achieved. Despite being a relatively low budget production the cinematography by Joel King truly captures the essence of what it may be like to be alone with nowhere to run heightening the feeling of dread that permeates throughout despite the admittedly pretty scenery. Additionally the relatively low key score by Brad Fiedel which incorporates a rather haunting whistle motif is almost certainly guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine as it breezes through the soundstage. Working wonderfully within the context of the movie this builds suspense and mood whilst never interfering with the naturally occurring sounds of the forest which often take on a life of their own.
One aspect that may surprise newcomers to Lieberman's picture is that it isn't all that gorey or indeed scary. True the film is bookended by two incredibly eventful set pieces one of which is sure to shock even the most jaded of gorehounds but in all honesty this is more creepy than downright terrifying relying on tension and an uneasy atmosphere to unsettle it's audience despite being somewhat predictable and surprisingly character driven. Another aspect which may well irk some is how open Lieberman is with the appearance of his killers. From the opening scene nothing is left to the imagination with both of the hulking mountain men clearly revealed and their intentions understood although there is no real background to their story. Maybe they don't like visitors to their remote home or maybe judging by their appearance they don't think at all and see this all as some kind of perverse game. Either way they are rather intimidating in stature and certainly childlike in their antics which all adds to the uncomfortable but undeniably quirky tone.
Ok so this is the part where I admit I have never been a lifelong fan of Just Before Dawn as some quite obviously have and only got around to seeing this a few years back via Shriek Show's American import DVD. Despite being exposed to a good percentage of the slasher genre over the last 30 years this one bizarrely passed me by regardless of its fanboy reputation and favourable word of mouth. How this happened I really don't know especially from someone who claims to be a full red blooded horror fan but after watching this recently for a third time for the purposes of this review I can honestly say this will be one of my go to titles if I crave a bit of backwoods horror action which has to be recommendation enough considering the wealth of other titles available.
88 Films present Jeff Lieberman's Just Before Dawn with an AVC encoded MPEG 4 1080p transfer framed at 1.78:1 housed on a BD50 Blu ray disc. The film has a soft almost dreamlike quality looking almost as if it has been shot with a diffusion filter which I'm sure must have appeared horrendous on lesser formats. Thankfully this new Blu ray with it's strong encode and high bitrate handles the hazy visuals perfectly retaining what I'm sure is the artistic intent of the movie. For the most part detail is fine regardless of the misty appearance with close ups benefitting the greatest. Unfortunately the rather mellow tone does flatten out the picture in the dense woodland scenes (for which obviously there are many) meaning depth is never that apparent although a handful of moments around a waterfall and those near disused church do possess a nice dimensional feel. Contrast was more than acceptable especially for the naturally lit daytime scenes where the sun streamed through the tree canopies whilst blacks were reasonably deep and inky if not perfect hindered by an occasional blue tint although the campfire segments did look very agreeable. I must say I was rather impressed by the colour scheme which picked out the rich greens of the woodland foliage and provided a warm healthy sheen to skin tones. Reds could on occasion express some over saturation but on the whole this was another area where this transfer excelled. As to be expected the naturally occurring grain structure manifested itself well providing an organic and wonderfully filmic presentation whilst print damage although visible was fairly light. A number of darker passages did show a thicker and much noisier side to the grain but this would have been undoubtedly an issue with under/over exposure during the original shoot and as such inherent to the source. I'm sure long term fans will be more than happy with 88 Films' colourful presentation and it is indeed better than any DVD version in current circulation although newcomers may find the softness a tad underwhelming.
Keeping the trend 88 Films provide Jeff Lieberman's movie with an uncompressed presentation of it's original monaural soundtrack. Delivered in a 24bit 2.0 channel LPCM mix at 2304kbps this is as expected rather low key and one dimensional with little in the way of fidelity. Dialogue is almost always clear whilst effects despite sounding authentically vintage are never problematic. Most importantly the environmental acoustics of the forest are well served as is the unnerving whistle theme which graces the soundtrack at key moments and of which is guaranteed to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. Hardly a flamboyant listen this does at least remain faithful to the original sound design and rarely does anything wrong.
The most interesting inclusion in this set of extra features is the rarely seen extended cut of the movie running around 12 minutes longer than the standard theatrical. Before the gorehounds get too excited the new footage doesn't contain any extra bloodletting or extended kills and is mostly character driven with extra lines of dialogue. Like the main feature this is presented in HD but the quality here is not up to the standard you would expect from Blu ray with a mostly flat, colourless image littered with every conceivable type of print damage. To be absolutely honest I really liked this rather ragged presentation and thought it suited the movie at hand whilst also adding to the scarcity and mystic of this particular cut but I would recommend watching the main version first if this is your first time. The sound is also given the uncompressed treatment in the form of a 2.0 channel Dolby TrueHD mix. A codec rarely used for mono presentations this lossless Dolby track is a tad loud and pitchy and like the picture doesn't appear to have been cleaned up in any way but gets the job done despite it's distinctly low-fi feel.
Next up is a feature length audio commentary with genre critics Callum Waddell and Justin Kerswell. I have been aware of both of these gentlemen from previous 88 Films releases and like those I enjoyed this chat track immensely. Both appear to be very well informed on the work of Jeff Lieberman and the slasher genre in general. They also provide an insight into their own experiences and memories making this an entertaining 90 minutes.
Next up is "Just Before Dawn: Recollections of a Slasher Classic" which is a 10 minute piece featuring director Jeff Lieberman chatting about horror cinema and his influences over the years as well as touching on the various locations for his movies.
To round off the new extras is the documentary "Grindhouse All Stars: Notes From the Sleaze Cinema Underground". Running just shy of 35 minutes this is features input from Jeff Lieberman, Matt Cumber, Roy Frumkes and Joe Ellison on movies that fall into that particular category. This is interesting to a point but does appear cover similar ground to a number of other documentaries that have found their way onto the extras lists of other Blu ray titles over the past few years.
As to be expected 88 Films provide a couple of theatrical trailers and a photo gallery as well as providing a reversible sleeve with both new and classic cover art.
For the record it is worth noting that US label Code Red released their own version of Just Before Dawn to Blu ray a few years back. Having never seen this release I cannot possibly comment on the quality of the disc itself but have been informed that it features a less technically proficient transfer most probably down to both the theatrical and extended versions being crammed into a smaller capacity BD25 disc and apart from the aforementioned longer cut contains non of the extras found on the UK release.
Often cited as one of the best and most unique titles in the backwoods slasher movie genre Jeff Lieberman's 1981 classic Just Before Dawn entertains like never before thanks to this solid Blu ray release from UK indie label 88 Films. Graced with a strong 1080p transfer, uncompressed audio and a collection of well rounded special features this comes as a highly recommended package that deserves a place in the library any self respected horror fan.
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