Just Before Dawn (1981)

Somebody somewhere anointed Just Before Dawn an under-the-radar slasher classic, one of many that dropped in the wake of Friday The 13th‘s camping bloodbath.

It’s certainly a horse of a different color, with a minimal body count and fairly rudimentary gore, but this 80s artifact has other tricks up its sleeve.

A quintet of twentysomethings take a road trip to backwoods Oregon to check out some land inherited by golden boy Warren (Gregg Henry).

Despite dire warnings from forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy), the carefree kids venture into Hillbilly Country and attract the attention of a Killer Goon (John Hunsaker) who turns out to be surprisingly nimble in his movements.

After a few bodies drop, it’s Warren’s girlfriend Connie (Deborah Benson) who steps up in the cajones department, cramming her feminist agenda down the throat of the simpleminded killer, while her broken lover sobs nearby.

Director and cowriter Jeff Lieberman (Satan’s Little Helper, Blue Sunshine, Squirm) has a distinguished resume of offbeat horror films, and Just Before Dawn is a case in point.

Filmed here in the great state of Oregon at Silver Falls State Park, the dark density of the woods contributes greatly to creating Lieberman’s unsettling and uncivilized landscape.

The story unfolds in realtime and the pace is often leisurely, inviting us to set down our anxieties for a while and just take in the gorgeous scenery by way of a vivid array of artful camerawork—the waterfalls, the mountains, the galloping streams, the treacherous rope bridge, the abandoned church …

Lieberman successfully camouflages the building blocks of tension and dread among the natural splendors, and his credentialed cast (Kennedy, Henry, Chris Lemmon, Mike Kellin, Jamie Rose) make the most of it.

Despite a tendency to take its sweet time, Just Before Dawn provides sufficient glimpses of psychos in the woods to remind us that there is potential carnage behind every shrub, even if it’s not all that bloody.

Those who thrive on splash and spectacle likely won’t be pleased, but Just Before Dawn proves to be an intriguing anomaly in the Dead Camper canon, which is not typically noted for its subtlety.

Ghost Stories (2017)

As a whole, Ghost Stories is greater than the sum of its parts.

While the individual tales in this anthology vary in terms of intensity and originality, it’s the wraparound narrative of Professor Philip Goodman (Andrew Dyson, who also co-wrote and co-directed) that effectively binds the whole dreary package in sorrowful strings.

Goodman is a skeptic and writer whose mission to debunk psychics and paranormal phenomenon has made him a familiar figure on British telly. He’s tasked with testing the validity of three unique cases, each told by a surviving protagonist.

A night-watchman (Paul Whitehouse) is haunted by a ghost child; an irresponsible teenager (Alex Lawther) recounts a terrifying encounter in his father’s car, and a wealthy businessman (Martin Freeman) confronts a poltergeist while awaiting the birth of his son.

Each story has at its heart, an instance of parental failing that leads to grim consequences for the parties involved, particularly for the clueless professor who sets out to define the unknown, and ends up consumed by it.

Ghost Stories does not offer buckets of viscera or a breathtaking assortment of effects wizardry, but rather demonstrates in austere fashion that paranormal events are rooted in the sins and injustices of past deeds.

Our ability to atone for those sins remains unknown. In other words, we may not be able to “wiggle off the hook” in a spiritual sense for long-buried grievances.

And if you’re the spiritual sort, that’s pretty scary.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Talk about a story for our times!

Masque of the Red Death is one of Roger Corman’s best Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, anchored by Vincent Price at the top of his game as evil Prince Prospero.

Prospero (Price) is a medieval tyrant who makes life miserable for the peasants grinding out a meager existence on his land. He takes their crops and burns the village to the ground upon learning that the “Red Death” (plague) is loose in the countryside.

Smitten by Francesca, a virtuous village girl (Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s first flame), Prospero spirits her away—along with her father (Nigel Green) and her fiancé (David Weston)—to his castle for the amusement of his sin-soaked courtier cronies, who seem to be staying for the season.

Outside the castle walls, the less-fortunate starve and succumb to the swift-moving contagion. Inside, Prospero goads his party guests into animalistic abandon, as he tries his damndest to corrupt the chaste and faithful Francesca.

As a melodramatic matinee redolent in gothic splendor with a high degree of creepy, Masque of the Red Death measures up.  

Corman’s budget-friendly, vivid production holds together reasonably well, and is profoundly augmented by Price’s fiendish charisma, a lean, provocative script by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont, and the saturated color photography of future arthouse auteur Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing).

In the final analysis, I’m guessing it’s the theme of a vicious narcissistic ruler engaged in depravity while his subjects suffer that resonates so strongly with the 2020 crowd.

Just sounds so hauntingly familiar. 

The Ritual (2017)

When good buddies fail to back each other up, disaster ensues.

Based on Adam Nevill’s absorbing novel, The Ritual is a tense and taut example of the “Trespasser Beware” genre, in which four friends go camping in rural Sweden to honor the wishes of a fallen comrade.

As we all know, these bonding trips to the boonies never work out, and things go quickly south. Dom (Sam Troughton) takes a fall and his limping slows their hiking pace considerably.

Then it starts to rain buckets. 

After getting lost in a seemingly impenetrable forest, the dispirited quartet stumble upon an abandoned shack that includes a menacing pagan altar among its amenities. 

No one enjoys a restful night. Luke (Rafe Spall), who already carries baggage over the recent death of their mutual friend, has a monstrous dream.

Team leader Hutch (Robert James-Collier) awakens to discover he’s wet his jammies, and Phil (Arsher Ali) is horrified to learn that he has somehow performed an entire ceremony before the altar in his sleep. 

And Dom’s still whining about his leg.  

Director David Bruckner and writer Joe Barton do an admirable job fleshing out Nevill’s story, as Luke becomes its pivotal character, trying to lead his friends to safety while dealing with a shitload of remorse.

Bruckner cinches Luke’s dilemma tighter and tighter as it becomes apparent that concepts like guilt and loyalty are luxuries one can’t indulge when faced with an ancient enemy that defies rational description.

The creature/deity effects in The Ritual are excellent, an unnaturally inspired Chimera of animal, human, and demon parts that towers above its pitiful followers, impaling victims in the upper branches of tall trees. 

We’ve not seen its like before, and I’m not too keen on seeing it again, if you know what I mean.

When the subject is monsters, that’s a heavy compliment.