So once again we have survived.

Just Before Dawn

tn_justbeforedawnHere’s a pretty obscure one – a good kind of DELIVERANCE / TEXAS CHAIN SAW type inbreds-in-the-woods movie from director Jeff Lieberman (SQUIRM, SATAN’S LITTLE HELPER). Gregg Henry (Val Resnick from PAYBACK) plays a guy who’s inherited some undeveloped land in some mountains somewhere. So against the warnings of a park ranger (George Kennedy) he takes some friends up there to camp and check the place out.

I love this type of movie, and this has a good twist on the usual subtext. There’s the traditional class difference – Henry and friends drive into town in a top-of-the-line RV, listening to Blondie and snapping pictures of people like they’re tourist attractions. Henry wears a trucker cap and sleeveless shirt, so maybe he’s not a yuppie, or maybe he’s a yuppie and a poser. Either way you still get a feeling from that slick RV (I think Kennedy calls it “your fancy wagon” later) that he’s too arrogant about being able to overcome Mother Nature with his money and technology. He and his girlfriend fancy themselves climbers, but they’re kind of amateurs when it comes to camping. Which is allowed. But there’s that whole city-mouse/country-mouse tension, you know.

Just Before DawnThere’s a great moment when our campers are out at night, in the middle of nowhere, drinking and dancing, blasting their music. And suddenly some old country folk appear out of nowhere, firing a rifle and telling them to leave because they’re gonna “raise the devil.” This scene has a nice complicated tension because their intrusion isn’t as cut and dry is it often is in a movie like this. They’re not exactly trespassers. He owns this land, and didn’t know anybody lived on it. His friend is pushing that logic, but Henry’s not comfortable with it, saying that showing them the deed is not gonna satisfy these people. I think he senses that at least out here “ownership” of land is kind of  a sham. Just because your name’s on a piece of paper doesn’t mean you can control this.

But they stay, and the devil is in fact raised in the form of a huge, giggly inbred who playfully attacks with a machete. As he kills them he takes souvenirs, so you end up with the creepy image of a killer halfwit chasing people around blowing a whistle. There’s something about that, just the stupidity of the whistling over and over, it really works. Jason should try that one.

There are a bunch of great scenes (SPOILER): the guy whose rope bridge gets chopped and he climbs all the way back up the cliff only to be pushed over by a foot-to-the-head. And the final kill where the woman literally shoves her fist down a guy’s throat. Also there are some really clever stagings where the characters don’t see what we see. In one scene the couple kisses in front of a waterfall while we see their friend’s corpse flop like a dead fish over the rapids behind them. In another part Henry searches the dark woods with a lantern, repeatedly lighting it so we can see a dead body behind him without him noticing it himself.

I have one nitpicky complaint about the themes of the movie. Not a big one. There’s a whole progression where the girlfriend is the nicest of the group, she doesn’t want to hurt animals, she won’t even hold a weapon to defend herself, etc. And then in the end she’s shoving her fist down a retarded man’s throat. (The potential of ever having to do this is why you gotta carry Handi Wipes at all times.) It doesn’t come off so much like “look, she’s been reduced to an animal by these circumstances” as much as “you can’t care about shit, if you’re gonna survive you gotta kill without mercy!” But it seems a little forced. Sure enough on the extras Lieberman talks about how he liked DELIVERANCE so he wanted to have a character go through the same transformation that Jon Voight does. That’s why it doesn’t quite feel natural, it’s more of an homage than a deepfelt feeling.

I can live with that though. This is a fun one with lots of tension, a little bit of dark humor and a story that just gets more and more interesting as it goes along. Also in my opinion it is a very positive portrayal of homicidal inbred rednecks because in this one they’re not cannibals. Everybody needs role models, you know.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 12th, 2009 at 11:53 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

25 Responses to “Just Before Dawn”

  1. Nice review, Vern. I’ve been meaning to check this one out for a couple of years now and I didn’t know that Gregg Henry was in it. Thanks again.

  2. Was this one of the movies mentioned briefly in Men, Women and Chainsaws? I remember some Deliverance style movie being described in that book as having the guys taking photos of the locals in the same way.

  3. I’ll check this one out. Really like Greg Henry. I’m reading The Hunter right now and when I picture Resnick it’s Henry even though Parker is still Marvin. The power of Greg Henry I guess.

  4. Men, Women and Chainsaws is an awesome book. I can’t believe it’s out of print now. My university library’s copy was falling apart last time I used it.

  5. Vern, it’s been a while since I’ve seen this one, but I remember it being pretty good. I also remember being pretty into the twist at the time, but I was a lot younger when I saw it and thinking about it now it seems like it could easy come off as goofy and ham-fisted. What did you think about the twist?

  6. Mickey – I didn’t think it was hamfisted at all, it actually doesn’t have alot of impact. I didn’t mention it so as not to be a spoiler, but when it happens in the movie to me it fell like more of a “okay, that explains it” than a “a-HA!”

  7. Gregg Henry is a blast in a lot of movies I’ve seen . I like his “relationship” with Lucy Liu in Payback , but he’s absolutely fantastic in Slither . With him , Fillion and Rooker , that movie is a blast . I even remember him in an episode of Firefly.

    Speaking of inbreds-in-the-woods movies , I was trying to find The Wild Man of the Navidad , but this sounds fun , so , which one is better ? This one has Gregg Henry , but Wild Man seems more low budget and raw .

  8. Gregg Henry is one of the many unsung heroes of acting. He’s one of these guys who pop up everywhere (He even had a recurring role in “Gilmore Girls”!) and deliver everytime an enjoyable performance, without even getting rewarder for it!

  9. I mean, of course he gets a paycheck. He isn’t acting for free (I think), but I’m sure you got what I wanted to say with “getting rewarded”.

  10. I just watched Raising Cain with Gregg Henry in it last night. Totally underrated movie, and that audacious five-minute tracking shot down hallways and elevators and escalators lets you know why De Palma used him so much: The man is clearly a pro who can deliver a solid performance no matter what technical rigors his insane director puts him through. In that extraordinarily complicated shot (look at the way the camera tilts just so when they get on the escalator), his every line and facial expression is timed perfectly and lets you know exactly how seriously we should be taking the exposition we’re hearing (answer: not very). It’s a performance that doesn’t call attention to itself but helps the tone of the movie immeasurably. That’s the mark of a truly great actor.

  11. CJ Holden : I was thinking the same thing , about him and his partner in Slither/Firefly Nathan Fillion ( well Fillion to a lesser degree , he’s a good actor , but not an unsung hero of acting , yet ). Both worked on troubled but good projects , Firefly with his cancellation and return on the big screen , Slither with his disappointing performance ( damn , I really wanted a sequel !!!) , and Gregg Henry is in Payback , a movie so full creative problems that the director’s cut feels like a completely different movie ( IT IS a completely different movie , with different characters and all….). No matter what , these guys always do a great job and are remembered for their work . Another actor in this category is John Leguizamo , and I really hate when this guys are called “box office poison” because , with the current quality of 90% of the movies out there , it really is unfair to say that.

  12. Love that scene. Also directing the psychiatrist where she needs to go but also making sure she follows the stedicam like everyone else.

  13. On a good note for Fillion , he’s in that new Halo game , and I’m not talking about as a voice actor only , he’s been digitally re-created in the game ! I was thinking of trying this Halo stuff for his presence alone , but I don’t know the back story , but at least I’m happy for him . One because his talent is recognized , and two because that’s a pretty big audience .

  14. Andy C. : For my first time with The Hunter , Jack Palance was Parker and ( strangely ) Brian Dennehy was Resnick . For my second time reading it , Josh Brolin was Parker and Gregg Henry was Resnick . He’s just that good.

  15. That Nathan Fillion is not a leading man is a constant source of befuddlement for me. He’s good-looking but not a prettyboy, equally adept at comedy or drama, never condescends to genre material, and can sell a badass one-liner like a pro. Yet Nicolas Cage gets all the good action roles. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD?

  16. I seriously hope that Nathan Fillion can break out of his “geek favourite only” position soon. I remember when he became a new cast member in “2 Guys, A Girl And A Pizza Place” (the sitcom that introduced the world to Ryan Reynolds). I instantly liked him and I was even more than happy to see him still working. He should be in a Coen Brothers movie. This guy has charisma and range. He can be everything from badass to silly.
    I don’t agree 100% on John Leguizamo. He IS underrated, and I’m always happy to see him in a movie, but he is not in every role convincing and often goes too far or just phones it in. But when he is on fire (and is also guided by the right director) he can be great!

  17. CJ Holden : I really like Leguizamo and I approve a lot of choices when it comes to the roles he has played in the past. Then , there’s SPAWN .So , yeah , I admit that he’s not always great and some of the characters he has played are pure paycheck , but when he’s working with a good team and a good script , he IS really great . I was also reading somewhere that it’s not really easy to work with him , so maybe that’s a factor .

  18. I approve a lot of HIS choices . Damn , stupid fingers!

  19. Vern, if you haven’t seen BLUE SUNSHINE (also by Lieberman) yet, you must check it out.

  20. For Vern and anyone else interested (which I think might be a lot of you) the trailer for Undisputed 3:

    http://twitchfilm.net/news/2009/10/scott-adkins-fights-to-survive-in-trailer-for-undisputed-3.php

    So far so un-subtitled. Not sure how long that’ll last. DTV film trailers are usually kinda shitty so i’m impressed that this one is just about ok, they seem to have the trailer rythem right and don’t confuse it with too much voice over or plot overload. Excited to see Adkins back this time in starring role. Also nice to see they got the russian mobster guy back, though I guess it’s not like these actors have got anything else to do.

    With this and Ninja; Florentine may have cornered the market in well shot action films this year.

    Oh also Vern, when will you have a review of ‘The Keeper’ up? Any chance of a pre-release review?

  21. Probly no early review of THE KEEPER, the studio he’s with now doesn’t do screeners. But as soon as I can obviously I’ll review it. Same goes for LAWMAN.

    And don’t forget BLOOD AND BONE for well shot action films this year.

  22. I really loved Blood and Bone, really really. I might even go as far to say it’s one of my favourite films of the year, which I know is a big claim to make. But I honestly think it’s an excellent piece of genre film making. Well shot action, excellent lead, moments of bad-assery and a script that lets the film plot build up, it doesn’t blow its load early by just telling us why he’s out street fighting. But lets it unfurl naturally. I’ll go post some more about it in the B&B review comments later.

  23. GoodBadGroovy : Thanks for the link , man . Between this and the EXPENDABLES trailer , this was a really good day for action fans !

  24. i should be picking this one up tomorrow if my video store has it, i’ll bet they do.
    me n’ the guy at work i lent it to, loved Blood & Bone. good call.

  25. watched this tonight. great twist on the slasher formula. so many creative touches.
    thanks for the heads up. i abide.

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