The atmospheric backwoods slasher JUST BEFORE DAWN hacks its way back onto DVD uncut courtesy of Code Red Releasing.
A quintet of hikers – alpha male Warren (Gregg Henry, BODY DOUBLE) and his girlfriend Connie (Deborah Benson, GHOST FEVER), jokester Jonathan (Jack Lemmon's son Chris, WISHMASTER), his girlfriend Megan (Jamie Rose, CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIE TOWN) and his brother Daniel (Ralph Seymour, GHOULIES) – head up into an unexplored expanse of Oregon mountains and make all of the usual backwoods slasher film mistakes. They carelessly hit a buck with their camper, they refuse to help local Ty (Mike Kellin, SLEEPAWAY CAMP) fleeing from a "demon" that has killed his nephew, or heed the warnings of ranger Roy (George Kennedy, DEATH SHIP) about the dangerous terrain (and also lie to him about where they are camping), make flip remarks about inbreeding among the locals (based on an observation of the unusual number of twins among the population), disturb the stillness of the night with loud music, and further desensitize themselves from danger of a very real stalking presence with a series of ill-timed pranks. By the time Ranger Roy finds them, the campers may already have fallen victim to what the locals call "the devil".
More creepy than scary or all that gory – although it does sport some make-up effects and prosthetics by Matthew Mungle (THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD), possibly underplayed for the benefit of the climactic effect – what makes JUST BEFORE DAWN so watchable (and rewatchable) is its uneasy atmosphere courtesy of director Jeff Liebermann (SQUIRM), cinematographer Joel King (FRIGHTMARE aka HORROR STAR), the electronic scoring of Brad Fiedel – who would also score the period backwoods supernatural horror film EYES OF FIRE a couple years later – which makes heavy use of whistling that melds into the sound design, and the subtle touches of production design by Craig Stearns (ROSE RED), as well as the sketchy though still likable characters (despite his insensitivity, Warren is the most sensible while Connie makes quite the leap from timid to tough final girl). Although the scares are well-timed, Liebermann is more successful here with some unnerving set-ups that stages action within all parts of the depth of the frame (and work even if we can see predict what is going to happen). Blondie's "Heart of Glass" is heard on the camper radio early on in the film.
Released on tape via Paragon in its uncut US version, the film first hit DVD on Media Blaster's Shriek Show line in a far from pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer missing bits of footage here and there including a wicked shot from the first death scene. While Code Red's DVD (also available on Blu-ray) lacks the extras from the Shriek Show two-disc edition, it does feature an uncut anamorphic widescreen transfer of the US R-rated version (90:24) as well as a significantly longer European cut of the film (102:24). The US version can be a little rough – some exteriors look like they were filmed with a diffusion filter and the shadows both during the day scenes and the night exhibit grain from underexposure of the original cinematography – but looks vibrant and reasonably sharp compared to the longer version which is faded and sports green vertical scratches from time to time. The added footage contains no additional gore or nudity, but consists of several bits of extended dialogue and additional shots that add to the mood (the US version is more streamlined, but the longer version doesn't really drag). The US version's audio is in better condition, but the extended version's track isn't anything to complain about. The only extras on the disc are two theatrical trailers (4:50) for the film itself. While I would not recommend diehard fans toss out their Shriek Show 2-disc edition, the uncut footage and the extended version (as well as the bump up to HD with the Blu-ray or at least the HD mastering on the DVD) make this an essential purchase. (Eric Cotenas)
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