Code Red (and Shriek Show)'s Just Before Dawn (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

One of Code Red's earlier forays into blu-ray, from their second batch after Redeemer and Voices From Beyond), we have the eerie man vs. nature vs. slasher film Just Before Dawn. The film not only makes its HD debut here, but also includes a second, extended cut that runs about ten minutes longer. We're still on the single-layer disc stage at this point in Code Red's blu-ray legacy, unfortunately, but now we've proper menus with selectable options. It's tempting to say you can throw away any previous editions once you've got this one in your mitts, but unfortunately it's missing all the great extras from Shriek Show's previous 2-disc special edition.
This is another in a short line of compelling Deliverance-inspired slasher movies, a la The Final Terror, Rituals or more recently the Wrong Turn films, where they essentially say, "what if we made the first half of Deliverance the whole movie?" Maybe that sounds hacky, but it's a damned effective idea and has resulted in some quite compelling horror films, including this one. A large part of what works about this film as well as the others I've named is that beautiful, exotic locations become an integral and dangerous part of the story. Being way out in the forests somewhere, they've got amazing, natural production values.

So an idyllic location and a haunting theme by Brad Fiedel (Terminator), effectively raise up what is otherwise a fairly generic slasher film to greater heights. A group of typical horror movie kids go off to camp and explore a very remote area of land one of them has inherited. George Kennedy stars as the film's bankable name and also a ranger who tries to warn them off, and must later try to find them while there's any left to rescue. Most of his scenes are by himself and the plot could probably be told just as well without his character, but he does help to keep the plates spinning. What he knows and the campers slowly discover, is that the woods is also inhabited by a family that's gone a little weird in their isolation; and one of them seems to have grown homicidal.
So like I said, the film's got the location and the music as definite pros. In the cons, you've got some slightly hokey acting, although everybody's fine for the most part, and the difficulty of trying to represent a group of people who live outside of society without them coming off as just silly. Most movies fail, and while this film makes a pretty earnest attempt, I'm not sure they succeed either. However, they make the wise choice of giving them as little screen time as possible, instead spending it with the much more relatable and plausible campers.

The last thing to really tip the scale in the right direction is some really effective scare scenes. Clever moments with lighting and camera angles really make scenes work much better than similar scenes in other slashers. I won't spoil the ending, but it's a real crowd pleaser for horror fans, no question. So overall, while I don't see this pulling in mainstream audiences even if you did convince them to give Just Before Dawn a shot, anyone who has a predilection for 80s slasher films will definitely enjoy this a lot.
And which version of the film is the one to watch? Well, there have been multiple cuts of this film, actually, and it's been pretty confusing for fans to keep track of. You basically had two VHS versions, one which was cut and one which was generally considered to be uncut that ran 91 minutes. Then you had the Shriek Show DVD, which was almost uncut at 90 minutes, but had a few brief trims, and a German disc, which restored the biggest trim to the Shriek Show disc (but not the others). And finally a UK DVD which was more heavy cut but also featured a bunch of footage not seen in any previous version, even the original "uncut" VHS, running about 100 minutes. Well, Code Red has thankfully cut through all of that excess and made our decision much easier by giving us the two best cuts, including one never before released.
I think it's safe to say nobody watching a serious horror movie wants to watch it with any of the violence censored, so Code Red gives both "uncut" versions. We have the version everybody used to consider uncut from that old VHS, and we have a super extended version with everything in it, all the trimmed gore and all the extra scenes from that UK release, that runs 103 minutes. And for my money, that latter version really is the definitive version to watch. While the extra footage doesn't include anymore scary or shocking moments, it does contain bits that really should just never have been cut in the first place. The main arc of the film is Deborah Benson's slow transformation throughout this film, and the extended dialogue really fleshes that out. Perhaps even more importantly, or at least less subtly: the cuts, which were clearly designed to just speed up the pace, make the film awkward and less sensible.

For example, there's one scene where the campers follow the sound of singing to find a girl in the distance and call out to her, "hello down there!"  And one of the guy shouts. "I say: do you live around here!" Now, when I originally saw the film, the non-extended version, I always chalked it up to a little moment of bad acting, just a weird unnatural way to say the line. But now having seen the 103 minute version, there's a couple lines between the ones I quoted. The guy asks "do you live around here?" and another camper shouts, "you sing beautifully!" The girl looks at them but doesn't respond, and NOW, with the subject having been changed and the girl not responding, it makes sense that he says the line, "I say: do you live around here" like that. So on it's own, you wouldn't look at that deleted scene and think, "gee, I'm sure sorry I missed that moment where the guy repeats himself and his friend shouts 'you sing beautifully!'" But what it does is turn a slight, jarring flaw in the film into a smooth, natural moment. And the six or seven seconds you shave off the running time definitely isn't worth that awkward hiccup in the movie, that just makes you think less of it. Maybe if you have a short attention span you'd disagree, but even in its longest incarnation, the film really doesn't drag. If anything, the whole film works as a bit of a slow burn no matter which version you're watching, and the longer cut makes that the most effective.
Shriek Show DVD on top; Code Red's extended cut in the middle and CR's shorter version on bottom.
Unfortunately, the longest version of the film is not the best looking, transfer-wise. Code Red's new blu-ray of the "uncut" 91 minute version is absolutely the best this film has ever looked. But they had to use a more beat up print to get the fully uncut 103 minute version. So if you want to see the film looking its best, you've got to watch the 91 minute version, though at least that cut's still an improvement over Shriek Show's 90 minute version. But the best cut looks noticeably poorer. It has the inherent advantage of being in HD, but that's about it. It's the softest, probably in part because it's clearly zoomed in and lacking information on the bottom and right side compared to the other cuts, despite both of Code Red's transfers being exactly 1.78:1 (Shriek Show's is slightly window-boxed to closer to 1.85:1). The extended cut is also worn, with flecks and scratches on it. It's not as bad as some of Code Red's most infamous "grindhouse prints" they've released, but it's a lot worse than the other versions.
Shriek Show DVD on top; Code Red's extended cut in the middle and CR's shorter version on bottom.
If Shriek Show's transfer were in HD, it might give Code Red's a real run for its money, certainly trampling the extended cut. But it's not, so Code Red's 91 minute cut is definitely the best the film has ever looked, with the smoothest, most lifelike image. Look at the clearing in the trees of Deborah (the standing blonde)'s shoulder. In both the Shriek Show DVD and the 103 minute cut, it's a burst of bright light. But in the 91 minute cut, you can see all the leaves in branches that've been flared out of the other two. Shriek Show and Code Red also have a bit of a difference in coloring, but that's more open to personal preference. Grain is natural on both of Code Red's transfers, and the audio is uncompressed, though a bit noisy on the extended version.

But, at the end of the day, it boils down to a pretty simple split. The 91 minute cut's transfer looks the best, but the 103 minute cut has the best version of the content. And the 90 minute version is missing too much, as well as being SD, to be a serious consideration. Fortunately, then, the best two options, the choices I can see genuinely dividing viewers, are both available on the same disc.
But now let's get to what's not available on the Code Red disc: the fantastic extras. The Code Red blu gives you two theatrical trailers for the film, which is at least better than nothing. But the Shriek Show set has not only those two trailers but an audio commentary by director Jeff Lieberman, and it's a pretty good one. And what's more, there's a 67 minute long documentary which interviews a whole bunch of the people involved, including Lieberman, producer David Sheldon, the writer Mark Arywitz, and stars Chris Lemmon (yes, Jack Lemmon's son), Jamie Rose and John Hunsacker who played the killer. Oh, and there's also a really interesting section where they talk to Brad Fiedel. So it's really an excellent special edition that's worth holding onto - or going out of your way to pick up - just for the extras. There's also a photo gallery and a bunch of bonus Shriek Show trailers.
So Shriek Show for the extras, but there's no question that Code Red's blu is the best version, out of any release, of the film itself. It was released in a very limited run back in late 2013 (along with a DVD counterpart), but is surprisingly still in stock and available on the Code Red store as of this writing.

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