Just Before Dawn (1981) Retrospective

SUMMARY

Two men named Ty (Mike Kellin) and Vachel (Charles Bartlett) are hunting in a forest and come across an abandoned church, which they go in to explore. After Ty sees their truck being crashed into a tree, Vachel is stabbed with a serrated machete by a chuckling assailant who then dons Vachel’s hat and jacket. Ty, seeing the murderer come out of the church, quietly flees off into the forest. Meanwhile, forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy) is at his home, where he encounters a van of five college-aged adults heading to rural property which one of them has inherited. Despite his insistence that they not venture up the mountain, the five continue along. Among them are Warren (Gregg Henry); his girlfriend Constance (Deborah Benson); Jonathan (Chris Lemmon), and his girlfriend, Megan (Jamie Rose); and Daniel, Jonathan’s brother (Ralph Seymour).

On their way up the mountain, they hit a deer, and encounter Ty stumbling through the woods on his way down the mountain; they dismiss his warnings of “demons,” as he is visibly drunk. After reaching a point where the van cannot drive any further, the group set out and foot and make a campsite; at night, while around the fire, Constance, Megan, and Daniel hear noises around them and become frightened, only to find that Jonathan and Warren are playing a joke on them. The next morning, they hike along Silver Creek to a waterfall, where they see a young girl named Merry Cat Logan (Kati Powell) singing before noticing their presence and running into the woods. Megan and Jonathan go skinny dipping at the bottom of the falls, unaware that someone else has entered the water. Megan feels hands touching her and assumes it’s Jonathan, until she sees him on shore, whereupon she panics and swims to safety.

When the group splits up to go exploring, Jonathan spots Merry and chases after her. She runs to a clearing but sees something that frightens her and hides behind some trees. Jonathan assumes it’s the rope bridge over the waterfall ahead and begins to go across, only to be confronted by the killer, who cuts his hand with his machete. The killer severs the bridge and Jonathan plummets into the water below. Unable to swim, he attempts to climb back up over the ledge using the rope. When he reaches the ledge, the killer kicks him in the face, and he falls to his demise. Meanwhile, Megan and Daniel are taking photographs in the woods, and come across the church and a graveyard. Daniel, who has lost his glasses, sees a figure coming through the woods, and thinks it’s Jonathan. He and Megan pretend to kiss as a joke, but as the figure comes closer, Daniel realizes it is not his brother. The figure stabs Daniel, and Megan flees into the church, where she watches through the window as the killer investigates Daniel’s camera. Suddenly, another identical man emerges behind her inside the church, realizing that the two are identical twins; she is murdered in the church while the other twin photographs her death from outside the window.

Warren and Constance (now barefoot and in shorts) return to the camp, but cannot find anyone else. While wading through the river, they encounter Jonathan’s body floating downstream, and pull him out. As night approaches, Warren leaves Constance at the campsite to retrieve the car keys from Jonathan’s body, but it’s not where he left it; nearby, he finds Jonathan’s body against a tree. Meanwhile, Ty finally encounters Roy in the woods and tells him about the twins at the church. Roy goes out on his horse to find the teens, and comes across Merry’s family. They tell him that the twins were actually their own and their mother died during childbirth, so he mated with his daughter and had Merry. Left alone, Constance is attacked by one of the twins, who chases her up a tree. The twin cuts down the tree, and just before he is about to kill Constance, Roy shoots him and he tells the couple to go pack their items. They go back to camp, as Merry runs through the woods to find them. At camp, the other twin stabs Warren and tries to kill Constance, who rams her fist down his throat, choking him to death. Warren begins to sob and Merry watches from the trees, as the sun rises in the forest.

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DEVELOPMENT / Jeff Lieberman Interview

You attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City. What drew you into filmmaking? Was it your passion right from the get-go or were there steps towards reaching that particular creative medium?

LIEBERMAN: I went to art school for cartooning. I had a natural ability to draw that I didn’t really learn; it was just one of those talents. So it took me all the way to school and up until after my first year, I had no interest in film whatsoever—even seeing movies, except for when I was a kid. I used to love sci-fi horror movies of the ‘50s; All the radiation scare movies, I used to eat them up. I saw every single one of them—matinees, double features. But that didn’t give me an overall interest in film. I didn’t even think of movies as an art form. In fact, pretty much nobody did back then. It took the Europeans to show the Americans that it was an art form.

So how did your career as a filmmaker come about exactly?

LIEBERMAN: When I was making Squirm, it was a logical extension of the ‘50s, and the template for Squirm was actually The Blob (1958). I was fashioning it after that, only with worms instead of the blob—whatever the blob was made out of. Squirm actually just instantly launched my career.  It was made independently and was picked up by AIP (American International Pictures). [AIP] was a big a studio, and they distributed it all over the world. It was sold in every country in the world and it played all over the United States, and in New York, where I live, it played in 50 theatres. Back then it didn’t seem like a big deal, but try to do your first movie, low-budget and all of that and try to get it in 50 theatres. It’s very rare today. In fact, it’s almost impossible because you’re competing against movies that have title sequences that cost more than your whole movie. So yeah, and it still makes money all over the world, in every language. Hey, worms are worms. They go back billions of years, so they’re not going to get old in 30 years!

Aside from the sci-fi horror movies of the ‘50s, where else did you draw inspiration from?

LIEBERMAN: The most immediate inspiration that I had—you know, Micheleangelo Antonioni made Blow Up, and that was probably the biggest influence on me. And the idea of making genre movies came from Brian De Palma. He was older than me, but he wasn’t that much older than me. So he had a bigger influence on me than Hitchcock., because Hitchcock was just somebody that you learned about, that you knew about. Not that I knew Brian De Palma, but he was so immediate. He was a New Yorker, he was working close by…

1970’s New York was obviously a huge time and place for filmmaking. Who else did you know in the industry at that time?

LIEBERMAN: I knew Jack Shoulder, who did The Burning. And I knew William Fax, he did [The Incredible] Melting Man. We used to hang out. These were guys who were in New York and we were all doing the same thing. I knew John Carpenter from a bit later. When I did Squirm, I started to meet a lot of these people. Now there’s this thing called the Masters of Horror. Mick Garris has a group out in California and they meet. It’s pretty much all the big names in horror movies. I’m one of them but I’ve never gone to one of their dinners. I know Armon Mastrionni pretty well because he did a movie for the same producers as Squirm and Blue Sunshine, called He Knows You’re Alone out of the same offices, right after I did Blue Sunshine. I know most of them now.

You’re fairly well known for making really sort of odd-ball, eccentric genre pictures, yet you always seem to effectively balance those elements with significant social commentary. Your movies are actually very thought provoking and intelligent. Where do you come up with your ideas and how do you approach writing and directing?

LIEBERMAN: People are always asking me how I come up with my ideas, because they’re referring to original ideas. It’s kind of impossible to describe how you come up with an original idea. It’s almost built into the definition of originality: you don’t have a way to do it. The only answer I can scratch at the surface is to first and foremost eliminate everything that’s already been done. So, I ain’t doing a zombie movie, I’m not going to do a [vampire] movie. All this stuff that’s become such a mainstay, they don’t need me to do it—unless it’s an ingredient of a brand new idea that would have nothing to do with the fact that there’s been 800, 000 zombie movies and 800, 000 vampire movies. You know, like they always say with writing, the hardest thing to look at is to look at a blank piece of paper. So you make a list of all the things that have been done and you take that list and you put it in the shredder. And now you’ve got a new list, which is an empty white piece of paper. The reason why it takes me so long between movies is because I always think, “They don’t need me to do this, and they don’t need me to do that.” So you’re going to get something fresh, original and thought provoking. I can’t just sit down and think, “So what’s fresh and original?” It’s gotta hit me. Once I get [the idea], the writing part comes naturally.

JUST BEFORE DAWN was a ‘for-hire job’ which you ‘re-scripted.’ How drastic were the changes you made to the original script? And how did the changes go down with the people who employed you?!

LIEBERMAN:  Basically the producers hired me because I made Squirm and Blue Sunshine which meant I was acceptable as a director to guarantee their foreign sales. The script was God awful, a thing called ‘The Last Ritual’ I took the job on the provision that I could change it and they gave me carte blanch with the provision that it was the basic ‘kids go into the woods and get terrorized’ movie. I made sure to keep the main characters names the same so a quick skim through wouldn’t freak out the buyers. But to give you an idea of how drastic the changes were, there were no mountain twins in the first script. It all centered around some back woods snake ritual. It really sucked. So, I made up Just Before Dawn as I went along, using ‘Deliverance’ as my model. Incidentally, one of the writers of the Last Ritual script teaches SCREENWRITING at NYU! And this was his only ‘produced’ script. Those who know….

The idea for the twins – who came up with that? Because I have read some different stories about it, for instance, screenwriter Mark Arywitz claims that he came up with that idea. Can you tell me about what’s up with that?

LIEBERMAN: Arywitz takes my saying I came up with the idea of the twins all wrong. His script did feature twins, I never said otherwise.  But they weren’t identical and both appeared at the same time from the beginning, and spoke throughout the movie, just like the other hillbilly characters. They were not ‘demons’ or inbred monster types, just cliché hillbillies. And they both wanted to marry Connie as I recall. That’s where that snake ritual thing came in, winner gets the girl, or girl survives it, gets one of them, or some such nonsense. All awful stuff that sounds even worse now. So I was referring to the way the twins were drawn as characters and depicted in the movie, silent, giggling mutants, and the twist of them only being revealed as identical twins half way though the film, not the idea of twin hillbillies which not only has no twist at all, but the fact that they’re twins meant nothing in his script. You won’t find anything similar to the twins in Just before Dawn in The Last Ritual, trust me.

I’ve read that the film’s script had many religious elements in its earlier drafts. What made you decide to lose them?

LIEBERMAN: They were corny, cliché and didn’t work at all. I saw that documentary on the DVD by William Hellfire, very well done I must say, where Arywitz implies that the religious stuff was too controversial or edgy or some such nonsense.  I took it all out simply because it was terrible, period. Nobody gave me any instructions at all, other than to keep the general set up and don’t change the characters names so the foreign buyers wouldn’t freak out. As far as religious meaning goes, I opted for the religious elements, if you can call it that, in Deliverance where mother nature was the only ‘God.’

The climatic confrontation between one of the killers and the ‘final- girl’ – the scene where the killer chokes to death on the girl’s fist – is quite unexpected and actually also very graphic compared to the rest of the film. It’s very effective moment but was it in the original screenplay or did you come up with that?

LIEBERMAN: The Last Ritual? Please, nothing like it. He had that ‘snake ritual’ as his ‘climax.’ I came up with that bit by eliminating everything I could think of that had been done before, then try to thing of what she could do with what’s left. Thirty seconds later I had the idea. Arywitz is on record saying he didn’t like it, it wasn’t believable or something and he could have done better. Wonder why he didn’t in his several drafts of The Last Ritual when he had the chance.

Every time I’ve seen JUST BEFORE DAWN people always comment on the film’s climatic confrontation between one of the killers and the ‘final- girl’. This scene, where the killer chokes to death on the girl’s fist, is so unexpected that, on first viewing, it always elicits gasps of disbelief from the audience. It is undeniably a very effective moment; one that I’ve always assumed was you taking the, by then, stereotypical situation of final girl vs. killer to new levels of shocking absurdism. Is that right?

LIEBERMAN:  That’s right. Gotta keep thinking up different ways to skin the same cat. Don’t remember what I was smoking when I dreamed up that one, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the original script.

At a time when the majority of horror movies were primarily portraying women as victims, Just Before Dawn was doing the exact opposite. Your movie basically turned cinematic gender stereotypes upside down and inside out.  What are your thoughts on this?

LIEBERMAN: That’s what I was attempting to do: empowering a woman. And now, it’s become like a cliché since then, and whether it attributed to my movie, I don’t know, but it was certainly something I did consciously. People discover that movie and it’s amazing how they bring it back to all of that stuff. With the nail polish and the makeup, [Debra Benson] asked me why is she doing this and I said, “Debbie, it’s war paint.” And she said, “I got it.” And once I said that to her, she was so on board with what I was trying to do.  A lot of people criticize the movie and say it’s the formula—slasher, kids go in the woods… blah, blah, blah. But they don’t even have the sense to just look at the date it was made. It was made in 1979. So now, OK, what was the formula for kids going into the woods and all of that then? At least be fair and look at that. Don’t look at Wrong Turn 3, 4 and 5 and say, “Oh this is formula.” It doesn’t make any sense. There was no formula back then. I had never heard of Wrong Turn, but a lot of people emailed me saying, “They remade Just Before Dawn!”

Presumably when the film was being made you were well aware of the current trend in horror movies at the beginning of the 1980’s. Other films of the time seemed to gleefully embrace slasher cliché, without any attempt to divert from the generic bandwagon; however, although JUST BEFORE DAWN includes many of the elements you would expect of a genre film of that time- namely teens ‘n’ machetes, it always seemed to me that you were striving to make a very individual film. That although the tried and trusted framework was in place the film was imbued with a sense of the arcane; that there was always something unseen, and unpredictable, lurking beneath the surface- a quality it shares with your 1976 movie SQUIRM. Was this your intention?

LIEBERMAN: As I mentioned, I was very impressed with ‘Deliverance’ and process of man being reduced to animal to survive. I wouldn’t relate that to Squirm though. Sometimes a worm is just a worm. Let me say this for the first time in print, or cyber print, I never SAW either The Hills Have Eyes, NOR ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ That’s right, not on film, video, or any other way. But critics insisted I drew heavily from both these films (I think you said it too) for Just Before Dawn. Deliverance yes, but that’s it.

Did you find any of the other slasher movies of that time interesting?

LIEBERMAN: I never liked ‘slasher movies’ with the exception of Halloween. That’s why I never really made one. I figured, they certainly don’t need me to do this stuff, plenty of directors out there to film girls running away knife wielding maniacs. The end of JBFD was the first and last time I did it and it made me very uncomfortable doing it. I have two daughters which could be the reason.

It’s very weird. To me, it’s tricky to say you’re a fan of the whole genre because there’s so much crap. Even the word “genre” is a misnomer because they say, “Oh, you do genre movies.” When I went to film school, when we were introduced to that word, it was the western genre, the mystery genre… So when you say, “I do genre movies,” it has no meaning. The western genre—well, some westerns were total crap and some of them were great. So to make an overall broad [statement] that I like horror movies… What I don’t like is that Friday the 13th started a whole trend of movies that I can’t stand. You know like, “Let’s dream up a different way for a girl to get killed, and we have the special FX makeup guy that knows how to do it, and we have enough of a budget to put a hatchet into someone’s head, cut off an arm and have the blood squirt…” whatever it is. To me, that’s not filmmaking. That’s nothing to me. It never had any effect on me whatsoever. But neither did Linda Blaire’s head rotating in The Exorcist. I loved that movie until they used all those special FX things. When her head rotated, I laughed my head off. It was so ridiculously stupid, but the last thing it was was scary to me. So when you start seeing these unrealistic things and people behaving in a way where they know they’re in a horror movie…  But I guess Scream actually made a movie about just that, which was brilliant.

Can you elaborate on your distaste for the slasher subgenre?

LIEBERMAN: Friday the 13th is the template for what I can’t stand that started when there was no such term as a “slasher” movie. That came later. Now people say, “Oh, well, I’m going to make a slasher movie,” which I think it retarded. But you know, like heavy metal, say, like Led Zeppelin. They didn’t say, “Oh, let’s form a heavy metal group, man.” There were enough of these guys with great guitar riffs and everything and then someone branded all these groups “heavy metal”, or “metal” bands. And then they took it to extremes. But the innovators are never people that are doing something to fit into something that’s already there. It’s the same thing with the slasher thing. I don’t think John Carpenter ever heard that word when he did Halloween, which I thought was brilliant. See there’s the difference: Halloween, even though you could say the same things about that as Friday the 13th, the difference is night and day. There’s a guy who’s a real filmmaker, a huge talent, and he did this one note, he knew like, “I’m going to make a boogeyman, and what’s every teenager’s—every babysitter’s—worst possible fear. And that’s all I’m going to do for 90 minutes—beginning, middle and end—one note.” It’s a one-note movie. Even the sound, the score—which he did—is one note. And that was brilliant. I wouldn’t call that a slasher movie. It was called The Babysitter Murders for that reason. I think John is one of the rare talents that came out of that time.

Can you tell us about your experiences shooting that film? Was it mostly smooth sailing or were you faced with a lot of obstacles along the way?

LIEBERMAN: It was a very hard place to shoot, and the reason why it looks so good is because we took full advantage of…. You know, I was thinking, “Well, what’s the point of going in the middle of nowhere in Oregon and not including the audience in where we are?” From the beginning of the movie on, I wanted to include where [the characters] were almost every chance I got. So it really felt like this was happening, and you hear all the natural sounds and all that. Like when you’re seeing them going over the rope bridge, you want to get back to see how dangerous it would be if they ever fell. You don’t want to just [hear about] it, you want to see it. So in order to see it, you have to get the camera back really far, and that means you have to go over unbelievable terrain to get there. Well we shot it on 35mm. My DP, Joel King, was an expert on lighting, but the effects he was going for took way more time than we had. So it was a constant battle between us regarding time. But when I saw the results, I was glad he gave me such a hard time because the lighting is fantastic.

Jeff Lieberman & George Kennedy
Jeff Lieberman & George Kennedy

How did you mange to nab an Oscar winner like George Kennedy for Just Before Dawn?

LIEBERMAN: George might have won an Oscar but he was branded as a ‘character actor’ (stupid term if you think about it, don’t all actors play characters?) So without leading man potential, he was thrown into the group of ‘name value’ guys who could garner foreign sales up front and he took full advantage of it, JBFD being one of many. See? I could have said it was the genius script, but that would be bullshit.

What was reception like upon its release?

LIEBERMAN: It wasn’t well received when it first came out because Universal was supposed to pick it up, and had they done that, it would have been a big deal because it’s a big studio. But since it didn’t have the gore and the scares and the body count… Friday the 13th changed the template of those sorts of movies. So this movie was more of an art film. It only caught on later. It went to television—it was on Showtime and Movie Channel… It was constantly on television, and people had more patience to watch it. But the time that I became aware that people were digging it was way later, with home video—that’s where it really got discovered, and especially first in Europe. They called it Survivance there. In Europe, it was being entered in festivals—all kinds of stuff that I didn’t know about. I went on to do a lot of mainstream stuff that wasn’t in the horror genre, so I wasn’t really aware what was happening with any of my films. The only thing I knew about was the financial side, but that’s it. Now, I know that people are getting $150 or more for the VHS of (Just Before Dawn).

 

PRE-PRODUCTION

The film’s original script, based on a story by Joseph Middleton, was titled The Tennessee Mountain Murders, and later The Last Ritual, and had heavy religious themes behind the twin killers’ motives, which director Jeff Lieberman felt were awful. It also included a sixth camper named Eileen and a different fate for Megan, which entailed her being tossed to her death over a cliff. It also included a climax involving Connie being forced to handle rattlesnakes by the inbred villains before becoming one of their wives; this version of the script also had more involvement from the Logan family, who were part of the scheme. Lieberman rigorously rewrote the screenplay from page one by himself to eliminate all the religious overtones in favor of a more thriller-based plot. Lieberman was heavily influenced by Deliverance (1972) while writing the film.

Screenwriter MARK ARYWITZ Interview

Tell us about The Last Ritual, which we understand is an earlier version of Just Before Dawn.

MARK ARYWITZ: That was not the original title. It was originally called The Tennessee Mountain Murders. Which almost sounds like a documentary. I did a treatment for Middleton, which I still have. It’s dated 1978. Actually, I want to get this in before I forget because one of you had mentioned an interview you read with Jeff Lieberman, the director…in which he claims he had come up with the idea of the twins.

Right.

ARYWITZ: That’s just patently false. I’m looking right now at page eleven of the treatment from 1978 – and there’s something about the second mountain man being an identical twin of the first.

That was in your draft of The Tennessee Mountain Murders?

ARYWITZ: Yes, and then it was in the draft of The Last Ritual as well. In the third draft of Ritual, and my guess is that this is the one that Lieberman saw, in fact there is a graphic page, a kind of title page…with a drawing. I’m not sure who did it – but right there is a picture of two twins.

So this was clearly your idea?

ARYWITZ: Yes.

Take us further along the evolution.

ARYWITZ: Well, it was The Tennessee Mountain Murders and then it began to change and eventually it became The Last Ritual.

What were the differences between the two? The major ones, if you can recall…

ARYWITZ: Really, that was more structuring. And a character was dropped. Of course, the big difference was that one was in treatment form, written in a prose way. The dialogue was in quotations. The Last Ritual was a full-blown screenplay.

Were there differences in the plot, aside from dropping a character?

ARYWITZ: Well, there were changes in the order of the scenes.

But the mountain twins were there…

ARYWITZ: They were there and the last ritual was there. The ritual is a whole situation where the Connie character gets taken by the mountain family and is put through this ritual of snake handling. And it was an idea I liked a great deal. I’m sorry it did not get done although I can see certain reasons from a “shooting” point of view. You need to get a snake wrangler or something like that. And maybe the actors don’t want to deal with the snakes…but you could get close-ups of hands and you could use other hands. I think the real reason they dropped the scene is that Middleton kept wanting all this stuff about God in the script.

Like what?

ARYWITZ: Well, the two things he kept insisting on, no matter what pages I brought him, were that he wanted more dialogue about God…and he wanted to lift any number of things from Deliverance. Those were the two big things that he kept pushing. I look at the Last Ritual script now and I’m glad the snake scene was dropped. I think the idea was good but I’m glad they dumped it because I was put in a position where I had to write a lot of really forced, awful dialogue.

For the snake handling scene?

ARYWITZ: Yes.

That was the climax?

ARYWITZ: Oh yeah, big long speeches about God…and another thing, he wanted to call Connie “Constance.”

Sounds a little heavy.

ARYWITZ: It was heavy only if you took it seriously. To me, the message was just so obvious. He made me sell the religious angle too hard. I kept wanting to try and be subtle about it. It wasn’t necessarily an idea I liked but there were subtle ways to do it. And he wouldn’t buy them. He wanted the stuff really up front and of course…it doesn’t really go with the tone of the movie or what the movie was about. That was a difficult problem. There were big, long speeches…hellfire and brimstone by these mountain crazies who wanted her to pick up the snake and become one of them. If it doesn’t bite her, she’ll become one of them.

Besides Connie, where is everybody else in this climax? Have they all been killed off?

ARYWITZ: No. In Last Ritual, Warren is running around getting the ranger. In the original Mountain Murders, there were some land surveyors around because Jonathan’s family owns the land. That’s who Warren was originally getting…but by the time we got to Ritual, there was a ranger who was just off the property.

So the ending we see in the finished product replaced the snake ritual, correct?

ARYWITZ: Right. I still like the idea of the snake but I didn’t like the speeches. Not only did I have to write fire and brimstone stuff – but I had to write lines of dialogue for Constance having philosophical arguments with the mountain people. “God doesn’t want this” – things like that. So I can’t exactly blame Lieberman for getting rid of it. It could have worked if there had been very little dialogue because it was so intense. Having to pick up a poisonous snake was sort of like a version of Russian Roulette.

But the chronology of who’s killed and how they’re killed…

ARYWITZ: And who the characters are and what the situation is – that all comes from Middleton and me. The ending, of course, is the huge change. Frankly, I think when Lieberman read about the snake ritual, he said, “This won’t work.” There’s just all this bad dialogue. Rather than looking at the dramatic possibilities, he just was put off by the dialogue and I don’t blame him. But I think there was a way to really reduce the dialogue to practically nothing and make it a very visual and intense kind of scene, intercutting with Warren getting the ranger and then trying to rescue Connie. It could have been a very good scene.

Joseph Middleton received credit for the story. Besides you, there is someone named Gregg Irving who received a writing credit.

ARYWITZ: I was hired by Middleton, who had a general story, and slasher movies were popular at the time. Plus, it was a way for him to get out of X-rated films. He took story credit but basically, he really should have just taken story idea credit. Not story credit. We worked out the story together and I wrote the draft. When it came to Picture Media and Lieberman came on board, obviously they wanted to change things. That’s just the process. They did it to Shakespeare, so certainly they did it to me.

What about Irving?

ARYWITZ: I don’t know who Gregg Irving is. I had a hunch that it might have actually been Lieberman because he expressed these ideas in some of the meetings…what he wanted to do with it, what he didn’t like and how he wanted to change things. And those things ended up in the film. He could have gotten another writer but it’s also possible that the producers were not guild signatories and so Lieberman couldn’t use his own name.

Were those meetings in person or by phone?

ARYWITZ: There were a couple of conferences, as I recall.

Do you recall the changes that Lieberman wanted to make?

ARYWITZ: Well, they’re mostly there. The biggest one of all is taking the ritual out, of course. I’m not crazy about his ending.

The “knuckle sandwich”?

ARYWITZ: Yeah, I didn’t find it a very successful ending. I wasn’t crazy about what he had done with that although I liked some of his other changes.

Doesn’t it make a completion of a journey for Connie though?

ARYWITZ: Well, her journey was always there. That too was in the original drafts…that she was going to be someone who was originally very peace oriented. That was the Deliverance angle. Middleton wanted her to be kind and loving to the mountain people and there’s a lot more interaction with the them in the original script than there was in the movie. Yet at the same time, by the end, she was gonna realize she had to knuckle down and deal with self-defense. There’s a whole long sequence in the script where there’s a fight between the ranger and one of the twins and they roll down a hill. And you can hear one of them die but you don’t know which one. So here’s the Deliverance rip-off. She had to climb down and find out who died. And Warren is lying there wounded. It turns out it’s the ranger who’s dead so now she knows the other guy is lurking around. And she’s got to get the gun, climb back up and confront the twin with the gun. So it was always her journey. That was always there. They just changed the way it was done.

It sounds like they tried to encapsulate it into one move.

ARYWITZ: Yes, they condensed it more. Some of it made more sense because I didn’t like the Deliverance rip-off. The climbing down and up like Jon Voight did in that film. But I just didn’t buy into the arm down the throat bit. I found it a touch comical.

Well, it’s possible to kill someone that way, would you agree?

ARYWITZ: I don’t know. The guy would have to have an awfully large mouth. And in the meantime, while she’s got her arm down his mouth, I don’t understand why he just sits there and flails around and chokes. As opposed to just taking her head and ripping it off.

Good point. Did you have any kind of relationship or friendship with Lieberman?

ARYWITZ: No. I think if I had, maybe things would have been a little different. We had some conferences but there were a lot of people around the conference table. One of my favorite stories is I remember we were sitting there and I was the only writer in the room. There were probably fifteen people and they kept saying they wanted to make a really good movie. And there was somebody who started talking about “what if someone cut a chicken’s head off and the chicken ran around sprinkling blood all over the place?” This suggestion came from the lawyer! So I thought maybe I should go to the window and open it and ask if there’s anybody down there on the street who would like to join in on the conference…because obviously it didn’t matter who was there. It was just a very funny scene.

So it was a difficult process at that point?

ARYWITZ: I was working for Middleton. In this situation, he had hired me already to write another script and he wanted to get moving on that. He was not getting along with Lieberman and the whole thing just kind of fell apart. That’s where somehow Gregg Irving came in. Whoever he is. So Lieberman and I unfortunately never really got a chance to work together without these other influences.

Have you seen, either by design or by accident, anything else he did?

ARYWITZ: I think I saw parts of Squirm but I never saw the whole thing. It was around that time. I might have seen it because the guy that optioned my first script Small Game was in some sort of contact with Lieberman.

We’re jumping around here a bit…but have you ever seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

ARYWITZ: Yeah, of course. I had seen that. Sure. That was not really a direct influence though. It was really more indirect. It was in the general sense. There was a market for these low-budget horror movies and for these kinds of killers who were almost nameless and faceless. In The Last Ritual actually, the twins were characterized a lot more. That was another change that Lieberman did. He made them faceless.

It’s great how you don’t find out there are twins until Megan is killed.

ARYWITZ: The way they were first shown in my script, and frankly I still like it better than the movie, was on the rope bridge. Jonathan is trapped on the bridge. The one guy slashes him…he starts going the other way and he almost gets to the other side. All of a sudden, the guy rises up again. Jonathan wonders what the hell is going on. He turns back the other way, starts going in that direction and as he gets towards that end again, somebody rises up and it looks like the same guy.

That’s good.

ARYWITZ: Lieberman’s placement of where the revelation should be was good…but I think my scene was better. (Laughs.)

You said earlier that you dropped a character. Was it someone who was important to the story?

ARYWITZ: There was a character named Eileen. By the time we got to Last Ritual, she was gone. That wasn’t Lieberman’s change. That was ours. That’s why Daniel ended up being a fifth wheel.

Was she supposed to be his girlfriend?

ARYWITZ: No but there was sort of an attempt at a romance. Daniel was conceived in the screenplay as being heavy…he was chubby. And the others were always trying to match make the two of them. But one of the things that was revealed about Daniel was that he was gay.

Really?

ARYWITZ: Yeah, but they dropped that too. He always had the glasses but they got rid of the rest of it.

The gay aspect would have been an interesting twist. You don’t often see gay characters in these types of films.

ARYWITZ: No – and we thought it was interesting too. The way it’s done in the movie, Daniel and Megan don’t have time to talk outside the church. Suddenly, the murderer appears. In our script, Megan thinks it’s Jonathan and she’s trying to make him jealous by coming on to Daniel. It turns out Daniel can’t respond and he admits he’s gay. And he was also caught prior to that, looking at a muscle man magazine!

Was there anything different about Megan’s death in the script?

ARYWITZ: Actually, the way she dies in the script is that the twins go to the edge of a cliff and they’re playing catch with her. They’re throwing her back and forth and then one of them drops her. She falls to her death. The twins lack any sensitivity to other human beings. Everything is a toy to them so they kill and it doesn’t mean it’s murder to them.

Did you spend any time on the set?

ARYWITZ: No, I did not. By that time, I had moved on to work on another project for Middleton and Gregg Irving had come on the scene…whoever he is.

As the writer, were you curious when it came to casting?

ARYWITZ: Of course. But at that point, there’s a parting of the ways. The script had been sold. It was theirs to do with what they wanted.

Do you have any feelings about the actors in the film?

ARYWITZ: I’m not sure I had imagined Megan as a redhead. And Connie was always a blonde. Daniel is the main change. We envisioned him as a little overweight and that he was also gay…this was something he was hiding. And this came out during the course of the film.

Was Connie the focus in terms of character development? Or did they all have something? Like Daniel had the gay thing.

ARYWITZ: I guess I would call Connie the protagonist. Warren was very important too because he was seen as somebody who was her opposite. He was out for himself. He almost gets into a fight with Jonathan because Jonathan is this spoiled rich kid. Warren had sort of a working class hero quality about him. And yet he wasn’t quite a hero yet. He was still pretty much selfish and looking out for number one and so when he gets away, we were supposed to think that he never comes back. Of course, he gets the ranger to help them so there is a sign that he had really fallen in love with Connie. He had something of a change in the character arc as well. Megan was always sort of the cock tease and that didn’t change a lot. Jonathan was always the spoiled rich kid. They’re a little kinder to him in the movie, maybe because Chris Lemmon played the part. In the scene where Merry Cat, the daughter of the Logan family, has run off with the make-up and Jonathan is trying to find it and encounters her…in the script, he tried to take advantage of her. In the movie, they reversed the roles and Merry Cat seems to be coming on to him.

And you said there was more development of the family as well.

ARYWITZ: A lot more. They had names. At one point, Connie is up there with the family and arguing with them on Merry Cat’s behalf because Merry is wearing the make-up and Ma and Pa are pissed off. Because it’s like the “devil’s paint” and this and that. Connie is trying to tell them it’s her fault. The parents even cut their daughter’s hair off in punishment for the make-up.

In those scenes, are the twins around? Or is it just Merry Cat and Ma and Pa?

ARYWITZ: In the third draft of the Last Ritual, the one that was actually bought, the only time you realize the connection for sure is when Connie has been taken by the family and she’s upstairs in a room and they’re dressing her down so she can go to the meeting…half of that time, she’s still unconscious. They lead her downstairs and sitting at the table are the two twins, Lucas and Luther. Their hair is plastered down. Now that I think of it, the thing that leaps to mind for me is Bloody Mama – the Roger Corman produced movie about Ma Barker and her killer sons.

So Lucas and Luther are the names of the twins?

ARYWITZ: Right, and the whole idea of the ritual was that if the snake doesn’t bite and kill Connie, she was accepted into the family…and she was gonna be handed over to one of the twins. And they were always like, “I’m gonna get her. No, I’m gonna get her.” Back and forth, like Neanderthals.

Do you know what kind of budget Dawn had?

ARYWITZ: I don’t know for sure what it was but it was somewhere around $1 million.

To get people like George Kennedy and Mike Kellin…and Jack Lemmon’s son.

ARYWITZ: Well, I don’t think Chris Lemmon would have commanded a lot. Oddly enough, I remember seeing his father on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson back then and Chris came up in conversation. Jack mentioned that Chris would be in a movie called Just Before Dawn coming out soon. George Kennedy was kind of past his prime. That’s what happens. When someone is on the down slope of their career but they have a name…they’ll be brought in for a movie like this and they’re not gonna be getting the kind of money that they used to get. But they’re working. He and Kellin were both good, professional actors. As far as the others, they were all newcomers. I thought everyone’s performance was okay.

There’s a Blondie tune in one scene. You don’t often see original songs like that in a movie of this type.

ARYWITZ: Yeah, Heart of Glass. When I say a million, I really could be off by a million. It might have been two.

We think there’s something real and unassuming about Deborah Benson, who played Connie.

ARYWITZ: I don’t know who did the casting but Lieberman had input and I think he was trying to get someone who was a bit like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.

Virginal?

ARYWITZ: A little awkward. The others, except for Daniel, are sort of a little fast and have outgoing personalities. Connie is very thoughtful. She does have opinions but they don’t necessarily mesh with the group as a whole.

So all in all, how much of the finished film is different from the original script?

ARYWITZ: I would say somewhere between a third and a half. Certainly at least half of the dialogue was changed. Story wise, probably more in the neighborhood of a third.

Who came up with the final title?

ARYWITZ: Well, it went from Tennessee Mountain Murders to The Last Ritual to Just Before Dawn. And this was the title that I suggested before Picture Media was even involved. Since the ritual was taken out, they wanted other titles and we threw some old ones at them. They picked Just Before Dawn.

Does the snake ritual happen pre-dawn?

ARYWITZ: Right, exactly.

Are you aware that across the board, this movie is pretty well regarded critically as one of those unseen but worthwhile horror films?

ARYWITZ: I’m very pleased. It has been on TV and the listing in The New York Times had their little blurb. I think they said “good of this kind.”

Did you see it in a theater?

ARYWITZ: No, I saw it in a preview. Picture Media invited us…Middleton and me.

Do you remember what kind of release it had? Limited?

ARYWITZ: I think it played in a theater here in New York. I don’t actually have a Variety to prove this…but I’m pretty sure it wound up on the charts for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t high up. Beyond that, it wouldn’t be at the Ziegfeld!

Of course not. These films often got shoddy releases anyway.

ARYWITZ: Again, I would have to say it was a limited release. It was not a Hollywood studio. But those kinds of movies…the slasher films were very big in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Did you like them? Were you a fan at all?

ARYWITZ: I liked some. I guess I liked Halloween. And I always liked Deliverance. I mean, I didn’t want to rip it off but I always thought it was brilliant. I wouldn’t call it a horror movie but it was clearly very intense suspense. I don’t think that ending was the first time it had been done [where the hand comes up] but that became almost a convention after that. You had to have that twist ending.

Brian De Palma was especially fond of that.

ARYWITZ: We had something like it in our script and I was a little bit surprised that Lieberman didn’t have that type of ending in the film.

A hand coming out of the water?

ARYWITZ: Actually, that one of the twins is thought dead and everything is fine, and all of a sudden the character rears up and you have to kill the evildoer one more time.

What was your overall experience like with Just Before Dawn? Was it positive? Would you rank it as a learning experience?

ARYWITZ: Absolutely. It was a mixed blessing though. I’m certainly glad the picture was made and I like a lot of it for what it is. I learned a lot. The one thing that’s unfortunate is I wish I could have stayed on board until the end. I think that if I had worked more directly with Lieberman, things would have been different.

CAST & CREW
CAST & CREW

 

BEHIND THE SCENES

Several odd occurrences happened during the shooting of the film; particularly, while shooting in the woods one evening, the lighting went out without explanation, leaving the cast and crew in complete darkness. After several minutes the producer yelled out ‘let there be light!’, and the lights immediately returned without explanation. According to director Lieberman, despite the numerous reviews of Just Before Dawn that implied it was inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977), he had not seen either film at the time of making Just Before Dawn. Lieberman also stated that he was influenced by Ingmar Bergman when assembling some of the film’s compositions.

 

LOCATIONS

The film was shot on location in the spring of 1980 at the Silver Falls State Park in Sublimity, Oregon, just outside nearby Salem, and an hour away from Portland, Oregon. Due to the film’s low budget, filming time ranged from 14-15 hours per day. The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens occurred during filming; according to actor Chris Lemmon, he and the rest of the cast were gone for the day on a trip to the Oregon coast when the eruption occurred. Despite its authentic, weathered appearance, the church used in the film was actually built for the production. Director Jeff Lieberman said that countless strangers showed up at the filming location on the day that the scene with Jamie Rose swimming topless was to be filmed. Lieberman said that word of this shoot had apparently gotten out among the local forest rangers.

 

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Special Make-Up Effects MATTHEW MUNGLE

 How did the JUST BEFORE DAWN job come about?

MATTHEW MUNGLE: I had interviewed for JBD thanks to Joe Blasco’s recommendation and was awarded the job. It was very cool working on a slasher film. I actually worked on THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1981), or PRANKS before that.

Were you satisfied with your work on JUST BEFORE DAWN, or were there things you wanted to do, but were unable due to time and money?

MUNGLE: I don’t think as an artist I am ever totally satisfied with my work. I always think, “I could do it better next time”. That’s what keeps me interested in the art of make-up and always striving to be better and changing the way I create things on make-up jobs.

 

POST PRODUCTION/SOUNDTRACK

The eerie whistling motif heard in Brad Fiedel’s music score is a reference to the rescue whistle that Warren carries in the film. According to Fiedel, many of the ominous sounds in the music score were actually electronically altered audio clips of himself vocalizing droning noises.

Brad Fiedel – Just Before Dawn 1981

 

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CAST/CREW
Directed by
Jeff Lieberman

Produced by
Doro Vlado Hreljanovic
David Sheldon
Paul Hreljanovic

Written by
Jeff Lieberman
Mark Arywitz
Jonas Middleton

George Kennedy as Roy McLean
Mike Kellin as Ty
Chris Lemmon as Jonathan
Gregg Henry as Warren
Deborah Benson as Constance “Connie”
Ralph Seymour as Daniel
Katie Powell as Merry Cat Logan
John Hunsaker as Mountain Twins
Charles Bartlett as Vachel
Jamie Rose as Megan
Hap Oslund as Pa Logan
Barbara Spencer as Ma Logan
CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
hysteria-lives
diaboliquemagazine
brandonsites
sorensencinema
terrortrap
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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