Jeff Lieberman/ USA/ 1981/ 90 mins
@ Filmhouse, Edinburgh as part of Dead By Dawn
Five friends go on an “outing” to Silver Falls State Park Colorado. Warren (Gregg Henry) and his girlfriend Constance (Deborah Benson) are joined by their friends Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) and Megan (Jamie Rose). They are joined by Jonathan’s younger photographer brother Daniel (Ralph Seymour). Warren intends to inspect an area of land that he has been bequeathed but when they approach the area Roy, the park ranger, (George Kennedy) warns them off in typical horror style. Shortly after a bloodied and breathless hermit (Mike Kellin) pleads for help and evasive action in equal measure but in the grand old tradition the quintet ignore his apparent distress and sally forth to their doom.
The expected slayings are relatively sparse and the first two acts are dedicated to the geography of the killing field and the specific elements of the environment that will be integral to the plot. Lush location photography of waterfalls, cliffs and woodland envelop the cast with nature’s terrible splendour. Though Texas Chainsaw Massacre may have more horrifying moments and The Hills Have Eyes truly nasty ones Lieberman wisely trades on the mundane and ordinary to amplify the bizarre behaviour of the locals.
The undeniably inventive climax reverses traditional roles but Deborah Benson’s performance does not support the volte-face the character has undergone. With weak dialogue, she is left to stare blankly into the middle distance with no score to provide context to her woes. By subjecting the viewer to the creaks and whistles of nature Lieberman intends to ratchet up the tension but instead creates a very flat third act which is only saved by an abrupt and inventively brutal slaying.
The action lacks consistency. Some of the kills are effective and muscular, but others are poorly executed with unimaginative choreography and lack of internal logic. A surprising lack of darkness in action scenes draws undue attention to the action choreography and blocking which varies in quality. One particularly egregious example is when the mountain men encounter Daniel and Connie but they relax when their camping partners jokingly emerge from behind them clearly nowhere near the sounds and movement that worried them so.
Jeff Liebermann prefaces this festival screening with an endorsement that Just Before Dawn represents a feminist critique of the survival genre. Whilst it is laudable to subvert expectations by reversing gender roles this occurs with little warning and the screenplay and performances do not support the transformation. Warren simply crumbles once he realises that Jonathan has died and begins to deny what is happening completely as the bodies stack up. In parallel to his breakdown Constance is near catatonic before the terror ends. Roy’s appearance as the park ranger and saviour of the group provides respite from the scoreless uncomprehending staring of the plodding third act but it is this risky directorial flourish that may have led to the film’s initial limited distribution.