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.