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.

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. 

 

 

 

 

The Hills Run Red (2009)

Boy, do they ever!

A gruesome splatter fest about our devotion to cult films, The Hills Run Red is a lot like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only the family business is cinema instead of meat.

And instead of Leatherface, we have Babyface.

Movie nerd Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a notorious horror film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red that up and disappeared, along with its director, years before.

Tyler tracks down the director’s daughter Alexa (Sophie Monk), a junkie stripper with a heart of gold. After helping her kick heroin, Tyler arranges for Alexa to guide them into the “deep woods” where the movie was filmed.

Tagging along for this road trip in search of cinematic buried treasure is cameraman Lalo (Alex Wyndham) and Tyler’s restless girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery).

In a clear case of Careful What You Wish For, Tyler eventually gets to see the legendary film, only to discover that he and his friends are reluctant cast members.

Gallons of gore ensues, but The Hills Run Red isn’t just another homage to vintage slice-and-dice. There are astute discussions on the fly about horror movies, that bring up interesting points about what fans really want, e.g., Emotional Connection versus Violent Spectacle.

Director Dave Parker opens with a hellish montage sequence and keeps his foot near the gas pedal at all times, which means some plot points end up on the cutting room floor.

No matter. As the title implies, there is blood and there are guts, and they are used judiciously and effectively.

I also noticed on a number of occasions, the character Lalo offers sensible advice to his friend Tyler, that is completely ignored. He observes that horror movies take place away from civilization, so one should never leave the city.

They go anyway. To the woods.

Lalo also tells Tyler that maybe The Hills Run Red was hidden for a reason. Tyler should have listened.

 

Rest Stop (2006)

Next time you’re driving through remote, unfamiliar terrain and you feel the call of nature, please consider making other arrangements.

Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and her BF Jess (Joe Mendocino) leave drab Oklahoma in the rearview and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Jaimie’s tiny bladder and a wily serial killer in an old Ford pickup.

After having sex and getting lost, the couple pulls into a grimy Rest Stop where Jaimie must pee in a substandard Ladies Room. She emerges to find Jess has disappeared, apparently abducted by a guy in a yellow pickup, that patrols the area like a shark.

Trapped in the grotty commode, Jaimie passes the time by reading doomed messages written over the years by victims of the trucker-capped fiend known as KZL 303—the very same maniac currently forcing her into a vicious game of cat and mouse.

Rest Stop is a nifty (and nasty) example of the Killer on the Road genre, which includes the likes of Joy Ride, The Hitcher, Breakdown, and of course, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Writer-director John Shiban successfully taps a rich vein of dread by constantly reminding us of how vulnerable we are once we leave the highway. So much so that even a seemingly benign comfort station can be a deadly trap.

As a lifetime horror fan, my advice to incontinent road trippers is to keep driving. And never accept a ride from a Winnebago.

 

 

 

The Marshes (2018)

Another camping trip gone to hell thanks to poor social distancing. Let’s face it: Maniacs have no respect for boundaries.

Three biology students from an Australian university are studying water samples in a vast, remote marshy area. As is usually the case in rural communities, the eggheads run afoul of Aussie-brand hicks, hunters, and hillbillies, who take time out from their skinning and gutting duties to harass the learned strangers.

Pria (Dafna Kronental) assumes a leadership role, but her group’s proximity to the bloody and brutal poachers erodes her confidence and she starts having bad dreams.

Gradually, the three academics intuit they’re being stalked by an apex predator with a taste for human burgers.

From a biological standpoint, Pria and her comrades are now a trio of tasty specimens caught in a primitive web, and as the tagline blithely exclaims, “When Science Ends, Survival Begins.”

The spider rapidly making its way toward them is a legendary swamp cannibal known as the Swag Man (Eddie Baroo), presumably because he gives his victims free t-shirts and lighters before devouring their flesh.

Writer-director Roger Scott keeps us off-balance with an eye-popping arsenal of swinging camera moves and perspective shifts that make the marshland scenery appear impenetrable, menacing, and steadily encroaching on the anxious scientists.

Certainly The Marshes would fit snugly alongside any number of “trespasser beware” features, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wolf Creek, another grueling import from Down Under.

For a non-horror comparison, I was also favorably reminded of director Walter Hill’s Vietnam metaphor, Southern Comfort, which remains an all-time favorite survival shocker.

Demon Wind (1990)

Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead = The Velvet Underground.

I accept that it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get where I’m coming from. It’s an undeniable influence.

Nearly 10 years after Raimi and Bruce Campbell caught lightning in a bottle, Charles Phillip Moore and his crew unveiled a delightfully unfettered homage, Demon Wind, about another bunch of old teenagers assailed by occult forces in a rural location.

Corey (Eric Larson) and his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensée) meet up with a group of friends and stereotypes to solve the mystery of Corey’s grandparents, who perished under mysterious circumstances during the Great Depression.

Turns out the family farm (more of a tattered theater set, really) is on land originally claimed by a devil-loving preacher and his followers who were set ablaze by townsfolk with no taste for human sacrifice.

Once Corey and his comrades reach the farm, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly, we’re at a Dead show, with ghouls coming out of the woodwork.

I’m not recommending Demon Wind because it’s a brilliantly conceived film that was nurtured to life by the artistic vision of writer-director Charles Phillip Moore.

Rather, it’s the sort of slap-dash amateurism (it was filmed in seven days) that drove Ed Wood to create flying saucers out of paper plates and a cockpit from a shower curtain.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and the makeup and practical effects on Demon Wind, though plentiful, range from barely adequate to comically half-assed.

Moore employs a similarly scattergun approach to the narrative, seizing and abandoning ideas with random enthusiasm.

One of the doomed kids, Chuck (Stephen Quadros), is a magician with a black belt. His friend Stacy (Jack Forcinito) has a shotgun with unlimited ammunition.

Chuck still carries a torch for Terri (Lynn Clark) who now belongs to homophobic meathead Dell (Bobby Johnston).

Poor Bonnie (Sherrie Bendorf) gets turned into a doll, and no one seems to care.

Magic spells are cast. You can tell because that’s when the bloopy, hand-drawn animation appears.

The entire cast looks as though it just stepped out of a Huey Lewis video. Feel free to hit pause and ridicule the myriad lame looks available to pre-grunge adolescents.

And don’t worry about Corey’s friends dying. When the pack gets thin, Amazon thoughtfully sends more.

Stinky cheese makes the tastiest snack, no?

Ruin Me (2018)

Honey, for our vacation this year, let’s try something different.

Ever wanted to experience the adrenaline boost that comes from getting chased by a masked killer through the forest in the dark? Man, there’s nothing like it!

This is the premise of Ruin Me, in which thoughtful boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina), surprises his taciturn girlfriend Alexandra (Marcienne Dwyer) with two tickets to Slasher Sleepaway—a 36-hour fun-fest that requires six campers to find clues in order to survive a frightful night in the woods.

Editor’s Note: If I were to surprise my wife with a similar gift, the only blood spilling would be mine.

As so often happens in these bucolic scenarios, the line between fantasy and reality gets lost in the dark, and Alexandra and Nathan gradually come to regret signing the liability waiver as fellow campers are stalked and sliced by a nearby escaped lunatic.

Director and cowriter Preston DeFrancis straps the viewer onto a bucking bronco of jumps, twists, and stupefying gaps of logic that play out in agreeable fashion for fans of the Doomed Camper genre. Even as we celebrate our beloved bloody tropes, we begin to notice clues of our own that point in a different direction.

If you can suspend your disbelief on occasion, the time passes enjoyably and you’ll even find yourself rooting for Alexandra, an unexpectedly complex and resourceful Final Girl, played with much gusto by Marcienne Dwyer.

Like the supporting cast, who appear to be a typical assortment of nerds, goths, and sluts, there is more to Ruin Me than just the usual suspects and psychos dueling in the dark. Sometimes the choices we’re forced to make are far scarier than any boogeyman.

Dead Shack (2017)

Warning: Stranger Things template in full effect.

A trio of nosy teens and their piss-poor adult supervision spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Since the name of the film is Dead Shack, we can assume they don’t get their cleaning deposit back.

Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) gets roped into a camping trip by his obnoxious friend Colin (Gabriel LaBelle), which works out fine since he has a major crush on Colin’s sister Summer (Lizzie Boys).

Along for the ride are Colin and Summer’s party hearty dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and his bored alcoholic girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian), who has zero interest in bedding down in the boonies with a bunch of goofy adolescents. At least not while sober.

Inevitably, the snoopy kids stumble upon a neighboring house owned by a lady in body armor (Lauren Holly) with a passel of undead kinfolk who need regular meals. Tonight’s Special: You!

Unfortunately, Roger and Lisa are too busy playing cards and getting plastered to listen to such an outlandish story, so it’s up to these wily misfit teenagers to save the day.

Dead Shack lives up to its potential and delivers splashy fun and flying body parts in Raimi-esque abundance.

With all the baggage present, director Peter Ricq could simply have allowed these characters to speak their minds, give voice to their dissatisfaction, and engage in Dysfunctional Family Feud for the entire weekend, but then we’d have a Tennessee Williams play instead of a grisly and often-amusing Zombie Comedy (Zom-Com).

We liked it. Worth a look.

 

Giant From The Unknown (1958)

He’s husky, but I wouldn’t call him a giant.

It’s pretty obvious truth in advertising laws don’t apply to monster movies made in the 1950s. Former boxer Buddy Baer (uncle of Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro, Max Baer, Jr) stands about 6-7, and tips the scales at a solid 250, as the titular creature. Impressive measurements, but well short of beanstalk status.

Still, when he dons his conquistador clothes after waking up from a 500-year nap, the local citizens of a California mountain town wet their collective knickers.

Enter leading man geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), Professor Cleveland (Morris Ankrum), and Janet (Sally Fraser), the prof’s sassy daughter, who are soon on the case, at first searching for fossil evidence of a rogue band of Spanish soldiers that kicked around the vicinity centuries before, led by a large inarticulate fellow called Vargas.

After about 35 minutes of zero action—other than Wayne and Janet’s awkward flirting—the trio deduces that Vargas (Baer), has shaken off the effects of suspended animation after being struck by lightning, and has slaughtered a bunch of nearby livestock (woke up hungry, I guess), sending area rubes into a panic.

The movie is over in 80 minutes, leading to thoughts that the whole thing might have been a diet-inspired hallucination. Highlights include Vargas throwing small rocks at his pursuers, a midnight make-out sesh with Wayne and Janet, and doomed secondary characters named Charlie Brown and Injun Joe who fall victim to the massive Spaniard’s rampage.

Giant From The Unknown is an actual relic, a funny ol’ fly in amber from Tuesday afternoon matinees on Channel 12, when harried housewives had a moment to drain a fast pitcher of martinis before returning to domestic servitude.

Note to Joel: It’s also a prime candidate for Season 12 of Mystery Science Theater. Just sayin’.

 

 

Mohawk (2017)

My tri-corner hat is off to Mohawk, a harrowing revenge tale rooted in a particularly dark corner of American history, that comes out with guns blazing and blood flowing.

This is one of those gutsy, low-budget efforts that should earn director and co-writer Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) a long-term contract to do whatever the hell he wants. His filmic instincts consistently hit their marks, allowing him to create vivid, indelible tableaus out of the rawest materials.

During the waning days of the War of 1812, a trio of “outlaws” are pursued deep into the forest primeval of upstate New York by a vicious posse of American soldiers, seeking vengeance for the sneak-attack killing of several members of their company.

As Mohawk warriors Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), along with their friend, British agent Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farron), flee further into uncharted Mohawk territory, the pot really boils for both hunter and hunted, leading to a showdown best described as otherworldly.

Like Michael Winner’s Chato’s Land (1972), which also features a ruthless posse chasing an American Indian (Charles Bronson, no less), it’s the white guys in charge who prove to be the real savages, even as the reluctant grunts quake in fear at the thought of being captured and tortured by natives.

Led by the unbending Colonel Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) and his froggy voiced scout Sherwood Beal (Robert Longstreet, wearing an outlandish set of Antiques Roadshow spectacles), the company, including massive WWE wrestler Luke Harper, inevitably shrinks down to the last man, as Oak becomes an avenger following a seemingly divine encounter.

The ironic subtext about the dangers of immigration is on-point timely, and shouldn’t be lost amongst the deft brutality and gripping vistas. These foreign invaders (a.k.a. Americans) are indeed a deplorable bunch, who think nothing of eradicating entire societies in its lust for land, money, and revenge.