Just Before Dawn (1981)

So, in light of my Terror Train review, a good buddy of mine suggested another little-known morsel from the height of the ‘slasher’ genre (late 70s/early 80s). I had no clue of this flicks existence before this, which lent to my viewing it with a completely clean slate…no clue even to the story. The plot is nothing ground-breaking, consisting of 5 friends heading deep into the woods to camp n chill. Venturing in, they encounter a couple of strange characters; a weary but compassionate park ranger and a terrified-for-his-life drunk. In their own ways, these two try to dissuade the naive campers from continuing on. Do they listen? Noooooo….! Of course they don’t. While they get their ‘camp’ on, small seemingly benign things occur, leading slowly up to a horror assault by a pair of creepy-assed, murder-minded, grossly-obese, hillbilly motherfuckers.This movie shares all the main characteristics of the genre, with the stereo-type characters out in full bloom. You’ve got The Experienced, Jock-like Sportsman, The Practical Joker Buddy, The Hot but Pluckily Resourceful Blond, The Vacuous Red-Headed Bimbo and the Sensitive, Glasses-Wearing Awkward Guy. Granted, some of the dialogue is stilted to all hell, but in the context it mostly works. What also greases the wheels is that we actually get to spend some time with them before they start dropping off, just watching them interact and behave as to get a feel for, at least, some semblance of ‘sympathetic character’…which nicely adds to the horror when they begin meeting their untimely demises. In that respect, I was reminded of the (obviously) superior The Descent (2005), where we were given the chance to ‘know’ the characters/victims a little, before the shit hit the fan. The deaths themselves are admirably restrained. They easily could’ve taken the ‘Friday the 13th’ route and just splashed red everywhere, but instead it’s the lead-up to the homocides that puts you ‘on edge’, not the wanton blood-letting. There is some genuinely eerie shit in this one, with a nasty underwater molestation and the varying ‘forest noises’, off in the distance, being ‘stand-outs’. Technically, the filmmakers demonstrated a respect and competency in the way that the flick was shot and edited, despite an apparently small budget. Sure, some of the cuts are jarring and unpolished, but an honest attempt at style was made, especially where the majority of the cinematography was concerned. The synth film score, by Terminator 2s composer Brad Fiedel, also goes out of its way to add to the flavor. Another ‘+’ for the film was the curious thing that they did with the heroine character, Constance: Somewhere in the 3rd act, she snaps. Not so much outwardly bat-shit crazy as instead becoming emotionally detached…robotic…and, I’d guess, a little delusional from the constant stress and terror. There’s a really effective scene demonstrating this, involving nothing more than a finely applied and uncharacteristic layer of womens make-up and a (deliberately) mechanical line delivery that made my skin crawl, eventually leading into one of the more original kills (elbow deep, baby!) I’ve seen in a while. The muted symbolism of the final shot was admirable as well, with a simple, smokey campfire used to a strangely unsettling effect that evoked more effective ‘tragedy’ than maybe it had any right to. Or maybe it was just a damn campfire and I’m getting too ‘head-shrinky’ about it! Who knows. In a nutshell, this was a cool entry into the ‘slasher’ genre that actually had a little care and thought applied to it. I’ve got to be That Guy and give a lil shout-out to my buddy Larry for this one. Nice ‘title-toss’, dude!! Thanks. To the rest of ya…if this kind of flick tickles your knickers…’Just Before Dawn’ is an effective one to check out…especially right before a camping trip!!!

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