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Just Before Dawn (Blu-ray Review)

Just-Before-DawnIf you’ll remember a few weeks ago, I posted a list of Blu-rays I was hopeful for next year.  Well, had I been writing here at Why So Blu? last year, my hopefuls for 2013 would have included 1981’s Just Before Dawn.   Code Red has answered my call by delivering one right as the year is coming to a close.  Along with another cult title, Just Before Dawn is Code Red’s first foray into the Blu-ray format.  This film has a very cult status as it briefly enjoyed a theatrical release.  Previous home video incantations of the film have come through very poor quality VHS and DVD releases.  Would Code Red be able to finally give us a good looking presentation of this back woods thriller?  Let’s take a dive into this then, shall we?

5

Film

The film begins with two hunters finding an abandoned church out in the mountainous woods.  One of them is killed (machete through the crotch) and the other hunter escapes.  We then transfix to some teens/college kids who are taking their RV up into the mountains for a weekend getaway.  They ignore the park ranger’s advice to turn around and make some new plans for the weekend.  During their camp they encounter a strange hilljack family and a killer out in the woods stalking, playing and ready to make the kill.

While this film may not be so well known in general circles, it is indeed one of the best slasher films of all time.  There is some gore, but it’s pretty light on the kill count (sorry, gorehounds).  When it does kill, its nice and bloody.  The film instead focuses on actually developing its characters and trying to build suspense.  It also proved disturbing in its score and sound effects, giving your ears and eyes almost a sensory overload at times that is unlike any slasher film I’ve seen.  One of the other strengths of the film is its ability to make the viewer uncomfortable at times due to it being so damn weird.  This leads to a lot of unpredictable moments that really have you at an unease because you really don’t know how its all going to play out, but you’re sure nothing good is going to come of it.

The acting in Just Before Dawn is also above and beyond most of its colleagues during the 80s slasher phenomenon.  Most recognizable is Gregg Henry, whom I’m sure you’ve seen in at least SOMETHING (he’s everywhere from film to TV).  He turned out to be one of the greater character actors throughout his career.  Some of the best slasher films always feature a more known actor of yesteryear coming in to “class up” the film and Just Before Dawn is no different.  Like Donald Pleasance in Halloween or Betsy Palmer in Friday The 13th, we have George Kennedy  of Cool Hand Luke fame playing the all important authority figure of the park ranger.  Rounding out we also get a Deborah Benson and Jack Lemmon’s son filling out the cast.  The acting in this one proves to be particularly good for this genre and tops among most.  And for the most part, the cast is well written.  While they are indeed youthful and act as such at times, they’re not a bunch of unlikeable dumb dumbs being counted off with a machete.

Brad Fiedel, who would later go on to score movies such as Fright Night and Terminator 2, does some interesting early work here.  It almost feels like a scoreless film, but really its not.  After watching the movie, you’ll either be mocking the whistle from this film or have it stuck in your head.  The whistle also sounds very similar to a piece of the score for Friday The 13th Part 3.  I’m wondering if Manfredini “borrowed” some of it.  Like I said before,  a lot of the strengths during intense sequences are enhanced by Fiedel’s work.  There are scenes with some sensory overload, but also some where he is able to show some great restraint.  If you’re going away from this with something stuck in your head for weeks, then he’s done some great work.

Just Before Dawn also boasts some tremendous cinematography for a cheap slasher movie.  The mountains and forest are shot in some epic scope creating a heightened sense of being alone in out there with nowhere to run.  I especially love how they shot the scenes with the rope bridge.  There’s just a danger that illuminates with every long shot they take of it.  And when a character falls later in the film it really feels like “Oh shit, that’s a long way down” without having to exaggerate anything on the screen.  For as many rushed and cheaply done productions as this genre churned out back then, this one was truly a masterful and competent production.  There is also a little twist in this movie that is greatly revealed and shot in such a way that could give even the biggest hard ass a gasp.  I won’t reveal, but I really want to talk about!  See the movie and find out.  It’s not a life changing twist, just a little one, but its really effective when its presented.

One day, maybe I’ll make a list of my all-time favorite slasher movies.  But without doing that, I can easily say Just Before Dawn lands in my Top 5-10.  It’s a character, suspense driven film that looks to Deliverance for inspiration and discomfort.  While repetitive in their structure, there were some good movies made out of the blueprint.  Last year’s Cabin In The Woods seems to have used this film for inspiration in its character setup for their drive to the cabin as well.  There’s no cabin here, but the characters, the RV, the warning and the mountainous travel all feels cribbed from this movie.  It’s a rare one, but definitely dig it up and check it out.

1

Video

Code Red, you’ve done!  This is the best this film has ever looked.  It’s much sharper, clearer and has some damn color finally.  The colors really are enriched with their transfer to 1080p MPEG-4 AVC.  The 1:78.1 frame manages to capture some of the gorgeous nature apparent throughout the film.   There is some welcome grain and very minimal, but welcome, print scratches and specs present.   The film’s lighting does cause some scene to be a bit soft, but the film is going to look the way it looks regardless of what you can do with remastering.  There are a few instances of some blocking, but you gotta be looking pretty close to catch them.  The film is on a BD-25 and shares the disc with another full cut of this film.  I can’t help but wonder if it couldn’t have looked a tad better if using a BD-50.  A small gripe, however as I’m happy as hell this movie is FINALLY on Blu-ray and looks pretty damn good to boot!

2

Audio  

Provided for your killing pleasure is a Dolby TrueHD 2.0 track that is very serviceable and kind of problematic at points.  The audio isn’t the cleanest, but I’m not familiar as to what the source given was like and what restorations costs might’ve been.  There’s a little bit a of peaking and distortion at times, but overall this sounds good and is a very faithful adaptation of what those few people lucky enough to see it in the theater got to hear.  Where it excels is in high tension moments where killers are whistling, girls are screaming and machete’s are hacking.  Its works wonders as your mind is just going crazy with intensity during these moments.

3

Extras

A previous DVD of the film had a feature length documentary included.  It’s not present here.  There probably was a licensing issue for it.  Instead a cut of the film that I think a majority of people have not seen has resurfaced and is present here in high definition picture and sound.  This is the ultimate treat for fans.

Extended Cut (HD) – This version runs ten minutes longer.  Most of the additions happen to be more character moments and extended lines of dialogue as opposed to extra or lengthier kills.  The print of this cut is in some rough shape, so if you’ve never seen the film before, watch the theatrical first.  I happen to really like the look of this however, it has a very charming grindhouse feel to it.  Lots of streaks, scratches, dirt, you name it.  Feels like home!  The audio is also very analog, poppy, peaks a lot and is at a loud setting.  I enjoyed it, but I can see some perfectionists not understanding the appeal and turning their nose up at it.

Theatrical Trailers (HD, 4:52) – 2 trailers for the film

4

Summary

While there’s not a laundry list of extras attached, we should not short sight the fact that there is a whole other cut of this film that is an extremely rare find on this disc.  Also, it’s a triumph that this movie even made it to Blu-ray (a wish come true!).  This and Lucio Fulci’s Voices From Beyond are Blu-ray launch titles from known cult DVD distributor Code Red.  They are both in limited pressings currently.  Just Before Dawn is currently limited to a 2,000-3,000 unit run, so if you want it, you better snatch it up or face the ugly ugly second market prices for rare titles.  Overall, I was really happy with the presentation and additional cut of the film to have my demands for this Blu-ray completely satisfied.  It tickles me to finally have this rare film now a part of my collection!  You can order this title when following the link below!

 CLICK HERE TO ORDER JUST BEFORE DAWN FROM CODE RED!

Just-Before-Dawn-Blu-ray

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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