Just Before Dawn (1981)
Unless you’re a real horror movie geek, I think it’s probably a safe bet for me to describe Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn as the best slasher movie you’ve never seen. Why it remains so obscure is something of a mystery, since the people who have seen it tend to get very excited when talking about it, and you’d figure that their enthusiasm would be contagious, but it’s never quite worked out that way.
It’s almost tempting to theorize that Lieberman might be suffering from some sort of curse, since his often-outstanding work never has gotten him the attention he deserves. His great sci-fi/horror satire, Remote Control, has yet to make it to DVD and his most famous effort, Squirm, has the dubious distinction of being the best film to have ever been mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and, yes, I happily would say that right to This Island Earth’s face).
Combining the standard elements of the slasher genre with the backwoods horror of Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes, Just Before Dawn succeeds thanks to skillful direction, effective atmosphere and — most importantly — a cast of likable characters whose endangerment causes us to feel actual anxiety and empathy, rather than the usual slasher-movie schadenfreude.
The plot is bare-bones simple: Several campers in search of an inherited mine in a dangerous forest find themselves being hunted by the demented offspring of the area’s requisite family of religious freaks. But the beauty of the slasher genre is that the plot is always secondary to the execution, and by that standard, this neglected gem easily ranks as one of the best of its kind. —Allan Mott