Monday, October 16, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: K is for Killer Legends (2014)

For those unaware, like I was, but apparently, social scientists are trying to re-brand urban legends as “contemporary legends.” Well, whatever the label, what these legends basically boil down to is modern folklore or oft told tales -- usually with a macabre element or an ironic twist to them, deeply rooted in popular culture, with just a hint of plausibility to keep the gullible hooked enough to keep passing them along. These tales are used as fables, parables, possible explanations for strange occurrences or events, but, more often than not, they are used as cautionary tales that usually happened to a friend of a friend of a friend or someone’s cousin’s uncle. And one of the prime examples of an urban legend is the tale of ‘The Hook.'

It begins with a young couple parked in a secluded lover’s lane engaged in some premarital necking. And as hormones rage, passions heat up, and few hickeys are born, the music on the radio is interrupted by a breaking news bulletin revealing an escaped mental patient / mad-dog killer has just escaped from a nearby asylum / prison; and this fugitive has one very distinguishing characteristic: one of his hands is missing, and has been replaced with a stainless steel hook -- which he used to murder several people. The bulletin ends with the authorities encouraging everyone to stay indoors until this madman is captured. Of course, the girl is frightened and wants to head home. The boy, who was >this close< to getting to second base mere moments ago, scoffs, saying the killer is probably miles away. And as the minutes tick by while they argue about what to do, a sudden scraping outside her door frightens the girl so much the boy finally gives up and drives away. But when he gets to her house, ever the gentlemen, he exits the car and hoofs it around the hood to get the door for her. And there, caught on the passenger side handle, hangs a torn-off stainless steel hook covered in blood.

This tale has remained fairly consistent since it first started spreading around in the 1950s but there were a few variations as the word of mouth echo got a bit staticky, most notably deviating with the car breaking down after hearing the news bulletin on a secluded road in the middle of the night instead. Here, the boy leaves the girl behind and goes for help. (Or gets out to pee, again, depending on the teller.) Suddenly, she hears something scraping on the roof. And when she finally musters the courage to exit the car and investigate, either the killer is sitting on the roof, banging the boyfriend’s dismembered head on the hardtop, or the boy’s mutilated body is hanging from a tree and his knuckles or feet were scraping across the roof of the car (-- other deviations have the boy’s blood dripping on the roof). Then, the girl learns too late this was all just an elaborate ruse to lure her out of the locked car. And while that’s how the story ends, where did it begin?

That is an answer documentarians Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills try to uncover in Killer Legends (2014). Kind of a follow up to Zeman’s Cropsey (2009), where Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio connect the disappearance of several local Staten Island children to an old urban legend about a murderous deviant roaming the ruins of an abandoned asylum -- but further investigation leads to something more real and infinitely worse. And with this new documentary, Zeman and Mills try to uncover the nugget of truth from which a few more of these morality tales most likely sprung, zeroing in on a quartet of notorious real-life cases that might’ve served as ground zero for these urban legends, beginning with tale of ‘The Hook’.

Here, their investigation begins with the deconstruction of the story itself, which isn’t easy to do with something that has generally just been passed around by word of mouth over the decades. Again, the story originated in the post-war boom of the 1950s, where teenagers started to gain more independence, disposal income, and America’s car culture came to the forefront. But the first time the story really gained any national attention is when it was retold as a concerned letter from “Jeanette” in a Dear Abby column published in 1960 as a cautionary tale for horny teens to keep their dresses down and flies zipped up tight, which also served as the inadvertent inspiration for many a horror movie -- especially the slasher boom of the 1980s. But Zeman and Mills propose the story's true origin can be traced to a real killer from a true crime case that took place in Texarkana, Arkansas, in 1946.

What came to be known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders were committed by an individual the local newspapers dubbed the “Phantom Killer”. And over the span of several months, the Phantom terrorized the border town by attacking eight people, killing five of them. And what makes this case relevant to the urban legend is the first six victims were all couples attacked in their car on isolated roads; some of them makeshift lover’s lanes. The first two victims survived the attack, but the woman was sexually assaulted and was penetrated with the killer’s pistol. 

No victim survived the next two attacks; and once again, the Phantom, after disposing of the men, sexually assaulted both women before killing them. The last attack credited to the Phantom took place at a farmhouse, where a man was killed but his wife was able to escape after being shot in the face. And while the killer was never caught, authorities felt their prime suspect, Youell Swinney, was the Phantom even though the only real evidence they had was a detailed but inadmissible confession from his wife. And so, justice was perverted a bit as Swinney, a car thief by trade, was instead sentenced to life in prison as a habitual criminal. And whether he was guilty of the murders or not, the attacks stopped after he was incarcerated.

Now, the tale of the Phantom Killer was famously -- or infamously, adapted into a movie by Texarkana mini movie-mogul, Charles B. Pierce, as The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), where fact and fiction definitely blurred in the ersatz docudrama. Texarkana had also changed a lot since the killings took place, making finding the actual location of the murders rather difficult as Zeman and Mills try to get to the truth, interviewing several investigators, who weren’t sure if Swinney actually was the killer after all, and locals, who remember the events and are resigned to the fact their town will be forever linked to this terrible event. But is it really linked to the tale of ‘The Hook’? Well, the evidence presented is tangential at best but when one sees how badly Pierce’s film adaptation twisted the truth -- I mean death by trombone, really?, one could accept how a deranged killer with a gun turned into a deranged killer with a hook as the story went from ear to brain to mouth. And like the killer, as the promotional materials for the movie so notoriously claimed, the story is still out there, roaming the streets today.

From there, the documentary moves to Houston, Texas, to get to the roots of ‘The Candyman’ urban legend, which officially ruined Halloween by spawning and spreading tales of poisoned candy and sabotaged apples stuffed with razor-blades just waiting for a bite by some unsuspecting trick-or-treater. As a kid, I remember at least three different cycles of tainted Halloween candy panic while growing up: two in the 1970s and one in the 1980s -- and one of them got so bad Halloween was essentially cancelled. And yet according to Killer Legends, despite the media firestorm and overreaction, actual confirmed incidences of candy tampering are extremely rare.

In 1959, a California dentist was charged with the unlawful dispensing of drugs when he gave out candy-coated laxative pills to trick-or-treaters as part of a misfiring prank. In 1964, an annoyed woman from Long Island, New York, gave out inedible items -- including steel wool, dog biscuits, and poisoned ant traps, to children she believed were too old to be trick-or-treating. And while no one was dumb enough to actually eat what obviously was not candy, the woman still plead guilty to child endangerment. And this incident caused a media firestorm, with reports of bubble gum laced with lye in Detroit and rat-poisoned treats in Philadelphia -- none of which could ever be substantiated. And then in 1970, The New York Times threw more matches and fuel on a non-existent fire with an article that provided “specific examples of potential tampering” -- stress on the ‘potential’.

Thus, our team of investigators dismiss the widespread belief that strangers have ever handed out poisoned candy to any children. But! The case could be made for non-strangers. Case in point, one Ronald Clark O’Bryan a/k/a The Candyman. Seems in 1974, O’Bryan’s 8-year old son, Timothy, died after consuming a giant Pixy Stix on Halloween night, whose sugary contents were laced with a massive amount of cyanide. And while O’Bryan claimed his son received the candy while out trick-or-treating, further investigation showed it was inside job and it was O’Bryan who gave his son the poisoned tube to collect on a brand new life insurance policy he’d taken out on his two children. 

That’s right. O’Bryan had meant to kill his daughter, too, along with several of their friends who’d gone trick-or-treating with them to try and cover his tracks. (The neighbor he tried to pin it on wasn’t home on Halloween night.) Thankfully, no one else ate any of the poisoned contents. O’Bryan, meanwhile, despite his claims of innocence, was tried, convicted, and later executed for the heinous crime in 1984, officially closing the book on ‘The Candyman’ investigation but his lingering presence is still felt every Halloween.

And so, the investigation next shifts to Columbia, Missouri, and the urban legend of ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’ -- another well-worn tale, which always begins with a teenage babysitter putting her charges to bed upstairs, and then moving downstairs to watch TV until the parents return. Then, the phone rings and a man tells her she’d best go check on the children and hangs up. Dismissing the call, the teenager resumes watching TV. But then the stranger calls back, several times, getting angrier with each call when she won’t comply with his instructions. And so, the worried girl calls the police who promise to trace the next call, which they do. And then they call the babysitter back and frantically tell her to get out because the mystery caller is calling from inside the house! She complies, the police arrive. But the ensuing search of the house finds the killer gone but they’re too late; the children are dead, whose gruesome manner of death is usually up to the storyteller but they are usually hacked to pieces.

Like with the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, the true-life case they find doesn’t quite fit that mold but, essentially, it was as close as they could get to the actual scenario. Seems that on the evening of March 18, 1950, fifteen-year old Janett Christman was babysitting for the Romack family. And at some point after she put their only child to bed, an intruder broke into the home and began to assault her. Then, at approximately 10:35 pm the police received a jarring phone call: a girl was screaming on the line, followed by the sounds of a struggle, then “come quick” before the connection was broken. At that point, the technology wasn’t advanced enough to make a trace, so it wasn’t until much later that the authorities connected the call to what the Romack’s found when they returned home a couple hours later: Janett was dead. She was beaten bloody, raped, and then strangled with an ironing cord. The toddler was unharmed.

Evidence at the scene didn’t add up, as it appeared the killer tried to make it look like someone had broken in, when in all likelihood, odds were good Janett knew her killer and let them inside. The initial prime suspect was a Robert Mueller, a friend of the Romacks, who also knew Janett. In fact, he’d tried to get her to babysit his children that night but she was already booked. (So he knew where she was, and knew she would be alone.) And according to court documents he’d made lewd and skeevy comments about the girl, expressing “admiration for Christman’s figure and her mature development, and expressed the opinion that she was still a virgin.” Mrs. Romack also told police she thought Mueller had made unwelcome sexual advances toward Christman in the past.

There were even some tangential links to other sexual assaults in the immediate area but Mueller was never charged after passing a lie detector test, even though that doesn’t mean much according to the profiler Zeman and Mills consult on the case. And while they are convinced Mueller probably did it -- the serial rapes stopped after he was drafted for the Korean conflict, the profiler reminds them hundreds of other men also left the area to join the service at the same time. Sadly, in an effort to close the case, an African-American man “confessed” to the crime and was quickly convicted and executed. And he wasn’t the only one as the investigators uncovered a startling pattern of cases closed in the exact same manner based on dubious confessions by minorities. Thus, even while the case of ‘The Babysitter’ is technically closed, this tragic crime essentially remains unsolved.

Now, while the first three cases were kind of fascinating and I was highly intrigued by the history and how they stitched it all together, Killer Legends kinda lost me in the last segment that concerned a rash of deviant clown sightings in the Chicago area, who allegedly tried to lure children into their suspect vehicles. And I’ll let you all draw your own conclusions from there. Anyhoo, they tie this outbreak of coulrophopia back to the arrest of John Wayne Gacy, a notorious serial killer, who killed at least 33 young men and teen-aged boys and then buried them on his property over a five year period (1973-1978). And although Gacy never actually killed anyone while dressed as a clown, they claim his infamy lit the fire so to speak. Yeah, the only point of interest in the whole segment is when they focus on a mass grave of clowns and circus performers at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, known as Showman’s Rest. Seems a tragic train wreck killed 86 members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus back in 1918 and most of the bodies were so burnt beyond recognition they were all buried in one massive grave.

Anyhoo, despite the fizzling finale I really enjoyed this documentary quite a bit and feel it's well worth a look. In fact, my only real complaint is that Zeman and Mills (the first directing, the second producing, both serving as guides) skate dangerously close to the edge of making the documentary about them instead of the subject matter. I mean, Are these guys documentarians or are they amateur sleuths? As the old trope goes, Are they relating the story or making themselves the story? The line is definitely blurred here. A line that is blurred even further with Zeman and Mills’ next project: The Killing Season, a multi-episode hunt for serial killers for the A&E network.

In fact, after the success of Cropsey, Zeman approached the Chiller Channel about a whole series based on tracing urban legends to their source. And while Chiller was enthusiastic and signed on to finance the idea, at some point the decision was made to scrap the series and just make it another feature documentary instead. Regardless, Killer Legends is still pretty good. The film is a well researched and a well-executed study of social anxiety and mass-morbidity. It is both frank and fascinating and a tad unsettling at times. And while all of it is purely speculative, one sad truth rang out loud and clear: in the end, don’t worry about the story, but beware the storyteller.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 11 down with 15 left to go! Woo to the ever lovin' hoo! Up next: The last man on earth hears a knock at the door.

Killer Legends (2014) Gulp Pictures :: Gigantic Pictures :: Chiller Network :: Storyville Entertainment :: Gravitas Ventures / EP: George Plamondon, Betsy Schechter, Justin Smith, Thomas P. Vitale, Joshua Zeman, Shane O'Brien / P: Rachel Mills, Gregory Palmer, Ben Correale / D: Joshua Zeman / W: Joshua Zeman / C: Gregory Palmer / E: Aaron Crozier, Brian McAllister / S: Joshua Zeman, Rachel Mills

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: J is for Just Before Dawn (1981)

Deep in the woods somewhere up in the mountains, two intoxicated deer hunters stumble upon an abandoned church and head inside to explore. And while the elder Ty (Kellin) takes to the pulpit, Vachel listens intently to his mock sermon from the pews until the faux preacher spots someone spying on them through a gaping hole in the roof. Then, when he heads outside to investigate, Ty sees their empty truck careening down the incline until it smashes into a tree and explodes. Back inside the church, Vachel hears the commotion too late and is surprised by a ginormous mountain man, whose vocalizations make him sound like rutting pig, who then stabs the stunned hunter right through the crotch with a machete. And after witnessing this atrocity, a terrified Ty flees down the mountain on foot.

Meanwhile, a group of five young adult friends are headed up the very same mountain on a camping expedition to an area of land recently inherited by Warren (Henry), the leader of the group, which is rounded out by his girlfriend, Constance (Benson), their friend, Jonathan (Lemon), his girl, Megan (Rose), and Jonathan’s shutterbug little brother, Daniel (Seymour). (And it should be noted that only Warren appears to have any kind of camping experience.) With all of them packed in Warren’s Winnebago, with Blondie jamming on the radio, this trip has already been fraught with peril as they’ve been nearly run off the road twice; once by a deer, the second by a fraught Ty, who is so overcome by shock his incoherent babbling about a murderous demon loose in the hills, along with his breath, and the half-empty bottle in his hand, gets him quickly written off as a raving drunk and left by the wayside.

Further up the road, their winding route also takes them past the ranger station, whose sole occupant, ranger Roy McLean (Kennedy), also urges these campers to turn around, saying the area they’re headed to is dangerous, deed of ownership or not. But Warren and the others cannot be dissuaded; and when McLean asks which campsite they’re headed for specifically so he can fill out their impending missing persons reports properly, Jonathan jumps in and gives him a bum answer so the ranger won’t come poking around and bother them.

Thus and so, the stage for wholesale slaughter is set: as no one knows where they’re going, and there’s a mutant murderer running loose in the hills -- who knows exactly where they are because he’s hitched a ride on top of their vehicle with no one noticing. (Wow. Camping in the woods is fun.) And after the group abandons the Winnebago and head further into the forest on foot before making camp, no one should be all that surprised, then, when strange things start occurring, beginning with some spooky noises coming from the woods -- but this just turns out to be the merry prankster Jonathan, with an assist from Warren, playing another joke. And while the rest of the night goes by without incident, the following morning’s hangover hike is derailed a bit by the sounds of a girl singing, which is traced to a skittish waif near a waterfall, who quickly melts into the trees.

From there, the group splits up, with Megan and Jonathan going skinny-dipping in the pool at the bottom of a waterfall while the others go exploring. Unbeknownst to them, however, the hulking killer is watching them and lurking behind the cascade before he disappears into the water. Thus, unaware that someone else has joined them for a swim, Megan feels someone grabbing for her but figures it’s just Jonathan screwing around again -- until she sees him on shore already, panics, and scrambles for the beach and her boyfriend’s waiting arms, who figures a friendly fish gave her a nudge.

Elsewhere, Warren and Connie are having “the talk.” Seems Warren is still apologizing for last night’s prank that frightened her so badly and for ignoring both her intuition that someone is watching them and her pleas to go back and tell the ranger where they really are in case something does happen; because if last night was any indication, she admits she’d be pretty worthless if something did go wrong. 

But Warren assures her everything is fine, and he even gets Connie to loosen up a bit later as the group whoops it up and dances around the campfire. But this merriment is short lived when a shot rings out and their ghetto-blaster explodes. Seems Warren is not only a new land owner but a new landlord as well when a family of three enter the campsite; a father, mother, and the girl they saw earlier; and these squatting tenants don’t take kindly to all of their sinful activity. And while holding a shotgun on all of them, the old man warns to stop their evil ways and vacate the mountain before they “raise the devil” with the accompanying “hell to pay” if they do. And with their dire ultimatum delivered, the family withdraws into the darkness.

The following morning, Connie, rightfully freaked out, once again asks if they all should just pack up and leave but gets the same standard answer from Warren, saying these hillbillies are religious kooks and relatively harmless. But things take a sinister turn when Megan announces someone stole her make-up bag while they slept and sends Jonathan out to find the racoon who swiped it. Well, turns out it was the mountain girl who horked it and tried to make herself look like the other girls. Seems she watched them skinny dipping and has become smitten with Jonathan, who doesn’t necessarily stop her flirtation. He gets her name, Merry Cat Logan (Powell), but when she tries to steal a kiss, his surprised reaction scares her off. But Jonathan chases the girl back to the gorge and the rope bridge they used to cross it to get to their campsite. Merry Cat tries to use it but is suddenly scared off by something on the other side.

Not realizing this, Jonathan thinks she’s just scared of the bridge and thinks a practical demonstration is in order. And he almost makes it across the perilous gap before realizing his path is now blocked by the killer (Hunsaker), who takes a whack at him with that machete, hitting his target in a defensively raised hand. And as a bloodied Jonathan turns and scrambles back across the unstable web, the killer chops up the ropes, severing the bridge, plunging him into the water below just a few yards from another deadly waterfall. But Jonathan manages to snare the rope still secured to the other side, manages to pull himself out of the water, and then climbs to apparent safety. Now, I say apparent safety because just as the Jonathan reaches the ledge, either the killer somehow got across in the interim, who kicks his victim in the face, sending him back down into the water where he is swept away and over the deadly falls, or we are dealing with more than one killer here. And the rest of the campers best get to the bottom of that mathematical mystery if any of them hope to survive to see the sun rise tomorrow...

An unsung name when it came to producing genre pictures in the 1970s, all producer David Sheldon really wanted to do was direct movies. And yet his first job in Hollywood was working for Lawrence Gordon at American International Pictures, serving as a director of development, where he had his fingers in a ton of pictures in some capacity, especially their blaxploitation efforts like Slaughter (1972), Blacula (1972) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973). (Seriously, check out his IMDB credits and then boggle like I did.) Sheldon had also written a first draft script vehicle for Pam Grier at the behest of his boss, Sam Arkoff, but this was shelved when Jack Hill got involved and wrote his own script for Coffy (1973), which was a big hit for AIP.

Meanwhile, Sheldon was also kind of moonlighting as a line producer for Kentucky based filmmaker, William Girdler, who had brought his first feature, 3 on a Meathook (1972), to AIP looking for a distributor. And while the studio rejected the picture, the two hit it off and Sheldon formed a partnership with Girdler’s Mid-America Pictures, where the initial plan was to split directing duties on a series of films, including The Zebra Killer (1974), Abby (1974), and Sheba, Baby (1975), where Sheldon dusted off his unused Grier script and finagled a co-production with AIP. But this partnership kinda fell apart from there as it quickly became clear Sheldon would never be unable to remove Girdler from the director’s chair. Still, Sheldon continued to produce pictures for him, including Grizzly (1976) and The Manitou (1977), until the director’s untimely death. After that, Sheldon formed his own independent production company, co-producing several more pictures for AIP like Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976) and Rolling Thunder (1977).

And Sheldon was still independently producing films at the dawn of the 1980s, working with Doro V. Hreljanovic, a native Czechoslovakian, who financed a variety of films ranging from Moonshine County Express (1977), to Bill GrefĂ©’s Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976), and a couple of Alfonso Brescia’s Italian Star Wars knock-offs, War of the Planets (1977) and Battle of the Stars (1978), when a script for something called The Tennessee Mountain Murders crossed his desk. Based on an idea by Joseph Middleton and then fleshed out by Mark Arywitz, both hoping to cash-in on the current slasher film boom, it told the tale of group of teenagers lost in the woods who run afoul and are bumped off by pair of inbred twins. The original script, whose title was switched to The Last Ritual at some point, also had a lot of religious themes and overtones as this was all a backwoods conspiracy and a family affair as the final girl had to pass a snake-handling ritual for the climax; and if she failed, she died; and if she won, well, she would have to marry one of those twins. Thus, the script was a bit of a mess but Sheldon and Hreljanovic obviously saw something they liked; and so, they brought in Jeff Lieberman to try and salvage it.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lieberman is another one of those guys with a small but solid oeuvre in genre films -- in fact, they’re so solid, quirky and distinctively creative it’s always puzzled me as to why the guy wasn’t in demand to make more of them. His first screen credit was for co-scripting the gritty police thriller, Blade (1973), for his mentor, Ernest Pintoff. From there, Lieberman would write and direct the nature’s revenge classic, Squirm (1976), for AIP, where I assume he first crossed paths with Sheldon. Lieberman then followed up his killer-earthworm picture with Blue Sunshine (1977), a trippy tale where a bunch of ex-hippies have some bad and homicide-inducing LSD flashbacks. And when Sheldon gave him the script for The Last Ritual, Lieberman felt it was just awful and embarked on a total overhaul.

Less inspired by Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham, Lieberman instead cites Ingmar Bergman and, especially, John Boorman as the biggest influences on what was to become Just Before Dawn (1981). Apparently, one of Lieberman’s favorite films of all time was Boorman’s adaptation of Deliverance (1972), whose themes of consequences for straying off the beaten path, alpha predators, and role reversals, he grafted into a brand new script; most notably with the character of Constance/Connie, our eventual final girl, who would serve as our John Voight surrogate, meaning someone who was essentially mild-mannered and decent and a bit of a milquetoast being pushed into doing horrible things to survive. There’s also some less than subtle nods to the urban revulsion of rural areas, alluding to inbreeding of backwoods folk as the group travels deeper into the forest, commenting on the number of deformed twins encountered. (All that was missing was some banjo music.) Writing under the pseudonym of Gregg Irving, Lieberman also tore out most of the religious stuff, removed a couple of characters, and redid most of the kills to make his film more of a conventional thriller instead of a slasher and yet still keep the high body count to appease his producers.

Thus, technically, Just Before Dawn really isn’t a slasher movie even though it sure does feel like one, especially when considering the setup and familiar characters. Moving the action from the Tennessee Ozarks to the Cascades of Oregon, specifically Silver Falls State Park just outside of Salem, both cast and crew had to rough it during filming. (Lieberman coined the phrase “Pee where you be” during the overnight shoots.) Also of note, Mt. St. Helens erupted during filming (1980), and while hundreds of miles away, the plume was still visible from where they were filming.

Here, you can definitely see the Bergman influence as Lieberman and cinematographer Joel King captured some beautiful scenery -- every frame a picture, with the thick woods, treacherous ravines, fast rivers, and breathtaking waterfalls, giving the film a very lush and striking foundation on which to spring the murder and mayhem, which is also captured quite cleverly, where Lieberman once more goes against the grain, leaving most of the murders to the audience’s imagination or what they think they saw instead of what really happened.

There’s also a few masterful suspense set-pieces that are executed quite brilliantly, especially the scene of the killer appearing in the waterfall and submerging in the same frame as a couple too busy kissing to notice what’s going on around them.

And speaking of not paying proper attention, while Jonathan was fighting for his life at the gorge, he blew his safety whistle to signal for help. Alas, while those back in the camp heard this, they all just write it off as their friend screwing around again and ignore it. Daniel, meanwhile, heads off to take some photos with Megan, stumbling upon a cemetery and that old church Ty had found earlier.

Elsewhere, Warren and Connie are in the river, trying to catch some dinner by hand -- not realizing the body of their friend is rushing right toward them until it plows right into them! Back at the church, Daniel and Megan are messing around in the cemetery taking photos. They hear someone circling in the woods but again assume it’s just Jonathon, which proves dead wrong as Daniel winds up run-through with the machete while Megan confirms we are dealing with a pair of mutant killer twins as she seeks shelter in the church, which proves no haven at all.

At the campsite, a distraught Warren and Connie find no one around. Realizing Jonathan was the last to have the keys to the RV, Warren says to stay put in case the others come back while he returns to the body to fetch them -- only the body isn’t where he left it. Meantime, Connie is attacked and tormented by one of the hillbilly twins, who blows Jonathan’s pilfered whistle in her ear, smacks her on the rump with the machete as he herds her around, before running her up a tree. (Some improvisations conspired by Lieberman and Hunsaker on the spot and used on an unwitting Benson, of which she was none too happy about.) 

But this refuge would prove only temporary as the killer slowly chops it down. And once it crashes to the ground, he grabs the stunned girl and goes for the kill. But then a shot rings out and the killer falls dead. It’s Ranger Mclean, whose been out looking for them ever since Ty stumbled into his station and told his tale of terror a couple reels back. He then came upon Merry Cat in his search, who led him to the campsite before running off again again. Here, we also learn the squicky details of the Logan’s twisted family tree and Merry Cat’s sister mom. The twins are also her brothers, but she has no love for them and is tired of her father allowing their murderous malfeasance.

And not realizing there is more than one killer, Mclean tells a returning Warren to help the girl, pack up their things, and he’ll escort them out of the area. Told a couple of their friends are still unaccounted for, Mclean tells them to stay put and he’ll go look for them. Convinced Daniel and Megan are dead, Connie watches as Warren breaks down a bit, not wanting to admit he got all of his friends killed by leading them out here. Thus, Lieberman’s Deliverance riff comes full circle as Warren, the Burt Reynolds stand-in, is already rendered to a state of ineffectiveness even before the other twin barges in and takes a chunk out him with the machete. Thus, it is up to Connie, decked out in her Maybelline warpaint, to step up and save the day as she leaps into the fray.

It was Lieberman who concocted the killer’s ignominious death at the end of Just Before Dawn, where Connie, obviously over-matched, and on the verge of being crushed to death, manages to ram her fist into the killer’s mouth. The director wanted the final death to be something he had never seen before in a movie and what he came up with was definitely unique and it was pulled off by using a prosthetic over-sized mouth placed on John Hunsaker while Lieberman's wife, standing in for Deborah Benson, shoved her fist into this gaping maw. 

And in the film, our ersatz final girl gets her arm into this oral cavity up to her elbow before the stunned behemoth falls and asphyxiates on it, leaving a triumphant Connie as the last person standing just as dawn breaks, the end credits roll, and Brad Fiedel’s eerie electronic score plays us out.

And that’s another thing that really shouldn’t fit into this kind of movie but does. Fiedel’s score, I mean. It’s strangely ethereal with modified vocals meshing into a synthesized buzz whose menacing drone really impends the dread. And while working with Lieberman, there are scenes where there should be music but there isn’t; and others where there shouldn’t be and there is as the film brilliantly uses amplified ambient noises -- the sound of rushing water, the cessation of insect chatter, even the silence of the trees, to great effect instead of the usual musical stings; though apparently someone up the chain feared the audience wouldn’t get it and added a few of those screamtrack moments just in case. And then there’s the constant play of the melancholy whistling, which Fielder claimed was mimicking Jonathan’s safety whistle but could also be read as wildlife or a form of birdcall communication between the two killers. And when you put it all together, you wind up with this glorious, Tangerine Dream-like thrum that will keep you on edge through the whole film. And Fiedel would go on to do a similar pulsating score for James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984).

According to Lieberman in the making of doc on Shriek Show’s Just Before Dawn DVD, the film was almost picked up by Universal Pictures for release when it was finished. Unfortunately, business issues with the executive producers prevented it from happening. The film did see a limited release through Picturemedia, which might explain why it remains a bit of an obscurity. Which is too bad, as this is one of the more competently directed and best acted body count movies of the 1980s, with great performances by Benson, Hunsaker, Greg Henry, Chris Lemon and the rest of the cast -- (which also almost included Michelle Pfeiffer, Daryl Hannah, and Richard Kiel as the killer twins). It’s rare when you don’t want to see anyone get killed in this type of movie but here ya go. And together with Lieberman’s steady hand behind the camera, and Fiedel’s score pulsing in your ears, the suspense in this thing is truly palpable. And that’s why I think Just Before Dawn belongs in the same breath as Deliverance, Southern Comfort (1981) and Rituals (1977) as apex examples of backwoods horror, murder and mayhem.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's ten down -- TEN!, with 16 left to go! Up next: It's all true -- except for the bullshit.

Just Before Dawn (1981) Oakland Productions :: Picturmedia / EP: Doro Vlado Hreljanovic, V. Paul Hreljanovic / P: David Sheldon / AP: Jonas Middleton / D: Jeff Lieberman / W: Jonas Middleton, Mark Arywitz, Jeff Lieberman / C: Dean King, Joel King / E: Robert Q. Lovett / M: Brad Fiedel / S: Deborah Benson, Gregg Henry, Chris Lemmon, Jamie Rose, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell, John Hunsaker, Mike Kellin, George Kennedy
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