Two adorable twins spend a beautiful school day playing "junkyard", thankfully not rotting their brains by staying inside and playing video games.
The film begins with a camera pan across a mountain vista at dawn, showcasing an endless wilderness that is untouched by man. It looks like the town drunk is proselytizing at an abandoned church, wretchedly clinging to a dying system, while his buddy reads god the riot act through a hole in the roof. The drunk goes outside to investigate, and his truck starts rolling (parking brake asshole), hitting a tree and exploding (after all, every car that gets into an accident has to explode, per movie union regulations). He escapes, but his buddy gets a machete in the crotch by a giant inbred mongoloid. So goes the unfettered maw of nature and/or religion and/or hillbillies.
Five young people (including DePalma-fave Gregg Henry and Chris Lemmon) are rollicking along in a RV camper, listening to "Heart of Glass" (I’m surprised they could afford this song…the movie, not the “teens”). The group nerd takes pictures of the quirky locals, namely two twin girls covered in dirt, hanging out in a junked car. If your child, instead of being in school, is covered in dirt and leaning against a junked automobile…you might be a redneck. They happen to crush a deer (these fuckers are always running out in the middle of traffic) on their way to fun and/or adventure and/or certain death. Henry shows park ranger George Kennedy a deed for some mountain, to which he retorts “the mountains don’t know how to read”. Good point. After all, man’s sense of structure is of his own making. Also...it’s a fucking mountain. George adds “let me know where you’re headed, so when you don’t come back, I’ll know how to fill out the report”. They decide not to heed the warning, mentioning that they are experienced climbers and such, and not merely schmucky slasher movie teenagers in over their doomed heads.
On their quest to conquer nature, they come across the old drunk from earlier, who’s whining about demons in the woods or whatever (maintaining a religious mindset). They decide not to pick him up (they must’ve seen TCM), but the hillbilly with the machete hitches a ride on the back of their RV. The drunk, despite being smashed (he’s an alcoholic after all), finds this development hilarious, as irony can sometimes function even when the recipient is completely ill equipped to verbalize such a concept. Either way, the trip continues, and they check out a sweet waterfall before cuddling around a campfire with some liquor, getting in touch with mother nature through her fermented spirits. Chris and Greg takes advantage of the creepy situation by scaring the girls (this includes the nerd).
The next day they curiously happen upon a young hillbilly girl, but she flees when in their presence (I guess she’s scared of those city folk who take baths and such). They manage to cross a rope bridge, which begs the question...why make a shitty bridge out of rope tied together? If you can’t spring for a real bridge, just lay down a long plank of wood and call it a day. Either way, all of this nature shit is starting to get heavy, so they decide to do some skinny dipping in a pond. The redhead shows her tits, and also plays aquatic grab ass with Lemmon. This curiously creates a Haunting-esque sequence, where a hand that she thinks belongs to Lemmon grabs her from beneath the water. In this case, I don’t think it’s a ghost, as they don’t go swimming as far as I know…unless it’s one of those ghost fishes. Maybe.
It’s getting to be night again, so they set up camp. The frisky redhead starts grooving to some generic honky funk, and the others chime in with their bootys. Unfortunately, somebody shoots their boombox out (probably one of those punk rock assholes). Things are starting to get ominous, but luckily, George heads out on horseback to save the day.
The next morning, the girl in the woods sneaks up on Lemmon wearing smeared, crazy person makeup. I guess this turns him on a bit (if there’s grass on the field you can play ball, even if you’re playing with a potential inbred). Unfortunately, two giant inbred retards with machetes corner him on the rope bridge (as if it wasn’t already dangerous enough), and he is forced to take a bath in the stream below. Meanwhile, Greg and the blonde catch a big fish with their bare hands, just to fuck with it apparently, and Lemmon’s corpse tumbles over the nearby waterfall and in their vicinity. When life hands you a dead Lemmon, you don’t make lemonade; you get the fuck outta dodge.
Meanwhile, the redhead and the nerd are hanging out at the abandoned church, and he photographs her in various saucy poses. His brilliant plan is cut short by one of the hillbillies, who then steals the camera while his retard brother puts on the nerd’s glasses. They take care of the redhead, albeit off screen, while the hillbilly takes photos of it all; sort of a snuff movie in still form, left up to our imaginations. This sets up the ending, where Greg and the blonde have to conquer a matching set of inbreds on top of the treacherous terrain.
Just Before Dawn is a pitch perfect cross between Deliverance and Friday the 13th, integrating a realistic survival tale with a series of stalker set pieces. Few films can claim to present a dangerous wilderness trip as realistically and enveloping as this one does. While relatively straightforward (as these things tend to be), there does seem to be an air of diseased religion about the whole affair. The movie starts off in a decrepit church, and the mountain family clings to their religion, inbred both in body and spirit. This family structure only nets two completely amoral monsters that go around hacking people up, hardly a ringing endorsement of a religious upbringing. The twins also take souvenirs from their victims, I guess as hunters might do. They are also quite child-like, enjoying these new found “big city” toys.
Director Jeff Lieberman created three cult horror classics to start his career (this one, Blue Sunshine, and Squirm), but was never able to keep it going, However, this triumvirate lives on as a small yet potent body of work, showcasing an auteur who is maybe a horror Walter Hill, with a touch of Brian DePalma. I guess it comes as little surprise that successful horror directors tend to be a rare bunch, as they are usually ghettoized as cretins at some point during their careers, or they drop dead after snorting an anthill of cocaine.