Friday, December 11, 2015

Neglected Gem #85: Just Before Dawn (1981)

Gregg Henry and Deborah Benson in Just Before Dawn (1981).

It’s difficult to pinpoint one thing above others that makes Just Before Dawn – a low-budget 1981 thriller about a group of campers stalked and terrorized in the Oregon mountains – uniquely memorable. It might be the unrelenting sense of height and verticality in its location setting; or its command of paradoxical tones, where stillness throbs and violence is static; or the unfailing intelligence of its artistic choices, from camerawork to acting to soundtrack. It might even be the fact that its first victim is the only character in movie history named Vachel – as in Vachel Lindsay, once-famed chanting poet and author of The Art of the Moving Picture (1915), the first book of film aesthetics published in America.

Directed by Jeff Lieberman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Arywitz, Just Before Dawn emerges clearly from a time and a genre. Coming three years after John Carpenter’s original Halloween and just one after the original Friday the 13th, it’s slasher horror with attractive, carefree young people as the meat. Characters fit approximate types: responsible guy, lovable jerk, hot girl, tomboy frump, nerdy tag-along. The killings involve a serrated machete. There is a fight to the death. But otherwise nothing really goes by the numbers; throughout, you’re fed just enough genre code to feel oriented, never enough to relax.

The opening sequence (following a credit roll which generates fair tension from nothing but synthesized, Shining-like bird calls and a rising sun so intense it could burn the screen) is among the most unsettling I know. We’re high in the mountains and deep in the woods. Two men finishing up a hunting trip josh and bicker in an ancient, abandoned church. The younger of the two steals an antique wall sconce as the older (played by veteran character actor Mike Kellin) begins to declaim an impromptu sermon. Drunk and tottering, laughing at his own boozy hilarity, he looks through the hole in the roof of the church. He sees something looking back. We see it for only a split-second  – it seems to be smiling – but Kellin’s guffawing face goes stone dead. “Somethin’s up there,” he whispers, and creeps outside to find it. The sequence goes on, grows quieter, creepier, and reaches its self-contained peak with an image that, in more than 30 intervening years, I’ve never forgotten.

Everything in this sequence is done just right, with timing, finesse, and a feel for the lasting tremor of terror as against the cheap jolt of horror. The shots aren’t held a second too long; ominous synth tones surge to just the right gut-buzzing pitch. The acting is beautifully controlled. And there’s a sense of the detail – in this instance, that faint smile, if that’s what it was – that will give the entire film its haunting life.

These filmmakers know what they’re doing, and what they’re doing is rendering the incredible credible, finding the remarkable inside the ordinary – usually by capturing, in a convincing, breathing way, the ordinary itself. Start with the performances of Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Jamie Rose, Chris Lemmon (Jack’s son), and Ralph Seymour as the campers: they warm the movie first with ease and affection, and later with sorrow and devastation, implying all the shared jokes and longstanding frictions of old friends. The slaughtered teenagers of slasherdom became, from Halloween on down, increasingly blank and arbitrary, but we are never less than emotionally invested in these “victims” – though that word feels imprecise, because they are so completely alive up to the moment they’re not. (Part of it is that the actors are not teenagers but grownups: mid- to late twenties seems to be the range.) Nearly as important are two old pros in secondary roles: Kellin as the geezer chased by “demons,” fleeing in wretched panic from he knows not what, little whimpers jumping from his throat; and George Kennedy, as a Park Service ranger who nurses ailing plants and talks to his horse, in what is surely as subdued and unforced a performance as was ever managed by this world-class ham. (Kellin and Kennedy had previously co-starred in 1968’s The Boston Strangler and 1971’s Fool’s Parade.) Smart, funny, irritating, terrified, weak, and resourceful in ways that feel utterly natural, these are genre characters who never act as if they don’t know they’re real people.

Lieberman shapes these performances marvelously, allowing plenty of room for human touches and pauses, so that when the time comes to pay slasher dues, his actors aren’t embarrassed and we aren’t embarrassed for them. The movie’s one bow to conventional slasher freak-out, back in that abandoned church, is tastefully restrained, and actually terrifying – almost a relief given the tension it climaxes, all the times and ways Lieberman has left danger unseen and, until that instant, unexplained. It’s by the same token that the camera never once leers at the actresses: the scant nudity is not set up to be titillating, and the sexual politics are intriguing rather than reductive. As a woodland thriller, Just Before Dawn owes a clear debt to John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), but a subtler presence, whether Lieberman ever saw it or not, is Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961): its soft distances and canny silences, its figure looking back at us in what feels like a dream but isn’t.

  George Kennedy and Mike Kellin in Just Before Dawn (1981).

The movie’s intelligence comes out in these and other deviations from the slasher playbook: the sparing use of Brad Fiedel’s already minimalist score; the emergence of terror and revelation from the backgrounds of scenes; the compacting of dread into a wheezing, high-pitched giggle; the extent to which tension in the film’s last third is carried by, and through, a near-darkness lit from below by campfire or moonbeams on water. Lieberman also re-engineers the slasher’s exploitation of the subjective camera. Early on, Kellin is shown in medium shot, fearfully scanning the surrounding woods. Cut to the woods themselves from, we assume, his vantage, and a slow pan across the trees. The typical slasher director would cut back, mid-pan, to the character in medium shot, thus “keeping things moving,” but also restricting us to a passive position that asks the character, “What are you going to do now?” Instead, Lieberman’s pan, tilting subtly upward in its course, completes a full sweep and resolves on a close-up of Kellin’s face. We thought we were in his shoes, but no, we’re standing next to him: those woods were from our point of view. This complicates identification by making us active witnesses with independent eyes, so that the question becomes: “What do we do now?”

The directorial hand is so light yet certain, so attuned to real talk and lifelike action, that it’s difficult to credit this as the same Jeff Lieberman who directed Squirm (1976), a bad monster movie about earthworms; Blue Sunshine (1978), a very bad conspiracy thriller about maniacs spawned of LSD; and Remote Control (1988), a very, very bad science-fiction comedy-thriller and wayward summoning of Ed Wood’s poor impoverished spirit. Apparently each of these chunks of cheese has its cult following, but only Just Before Dawn evidences anything like an artist’s technique and feeling. (Though to be fair, Blue Sunshine may merit resurrection by cultural historians. An apparently liberal Congressional candidate is revealed as a former dealer of bad acid, the recipients of which are, a decade later, losing both their hair [!] and their minds; climactically, a former college football star and acid zombie is driven by an excess of disco music [!!] to go Godzilla all over a shopping mall. N.B.: the hero is played by Zalman King, later a well-known auteur of softcore porn.)

The only other film of Lieberman’s I’ve seen, the 1995 HBO documentary Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion, is a serviceable cold-case file which hundreds of others could have assembled just as expertly. So Just Before Dawn remains a genuine outlier, an all but inexplicable emergence from the work of a routine exploitation filmmaker who sought, this one time, to transcend the limits of his genre and his talent – and succeeded. Where did this movie come from? Where did it go? Or maybe such questions are beside the point, and all the explanation we need is the thing itself.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard, 2003) and The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (St. Martin’s, 2012), and a contributor to the anthologies Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (Cambridge, 1999) and Screening Violence (Rutgers, 2001). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect Online), blogger (Pop with a Shotgun), and TV writer (The Food Network), he regularly contributes to Hey Dullblog, a Beatles blog he co-founded, and the pop culture site Hi Lobrow, and is currently writing his third and fourth books. He works as an archivist in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats.

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