Just Before Dawn (1981) - USA - Horror - Rated R
Directed by Jeff Lieberman
Starring Deborah Benson, Gregg Henry, Chris Lemmon, Jamie Rose, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell, George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, John Hunsaker, Hap Oslund, Barbara Spencer, Charles Bartlett
A backwoods slasher film with excellent characterizations that is not only a good slasher movie but a good movie period.
Warren has acquired some property, effectively a mountain way off anybody's beaten path except the few who make it their home, and for whom a deed means nothing. He and four friends, including his girlfriend Connie, trek to the mountain despite a forest ranger's warnings and that of a frightened hunter who tells them of a demon who is after him. They take the hunter's warning's as the delusion of a drunk. There may be no demon in the woods, but there is somebody, and the campers are just his latest prey.
Just Before Dawn works on several levels, of course not the least of which is the scenic backdrop having filmed on location in Oregon with the majestic green of the woods, the placid clarity of lakes in echoing hollows, the roar of sparkling waterfalls amid the sounds of nature. Yet among the serenity of nature lurks predators and prey, and not necessarily of the four-legged variety. Even in the wilds of nature man is his own greatest enemy, even as the result of the evil he has done to his own.
The 5 campers are a well integrated mix, both working off of each other and lighting a fuse for a transformation taking place which is the best feature of the film. George Kennedy is a welcome presence as the forest ranger who would rather be sitting at home working on his botany but his sense of duty won't let him, and his under-played demeanor hits just the right note.
The most beautiful part of the film is Deborah Benson's role as Connie. Her character is reserved at first. Reserved is an easy thing to over-play, but under her reserved stature is a confidence that just needs the right spark to pull it out. Jamie Rose's character of Megan lights the fuse with her contrast in a character who is the first one to strike up a dance when the music plays, or the first one to go skinny dipping when the chance presents itself.
The outdoors play an important role in Connie's transformation. Our homes are closed up. We dress by acceptable dress codes (eh...most of us). But in the outdoors nature is open and free, and so becomes Connie as her hair comes down, she goes from the conservative khaki's to wearing the short shorts Megan let her have. Her blouse is tied up around her bare waist now rather than tucked into her pants. She is a part of nature, and as a part of nature she must fight to survive. In her performance as Connie and in her character's transformation and literal knock-down drag-out fight with the killer, Deborah Benson may well be the sexiest woman in any slasher movie.
Another transformation that takes place is that of Gregg Henry's character. Unlike many who feel his character becomes a coward, I feel that his character becomes unsettled, effectively losing his security blanket, so to speak, which is his friends. He falls into a state of denial. For example when the tent falls down, he blames it on being poorly erected in the first place. He constantly talks as though talking is some kind of mojo that will keep bad things away. Not unlike many of us when we are scared we will rationalize things away, and sound, even the sound of our voices, will make thing go away, we hope.
Just Before Dawn is not Friday the 13th, Wrong Turn, or any of a slew of other slasher flicks that throw out 2 dimensional cardboard characters to be slayed by a killer. It is a movie first, a story of survival and transformation, and it happens to have a backwoods killer in it. Watching slasher movies is about like panning for gold, you're there to have fun and don't expect to actually find gold. But once in a while a brilliant nugget shows up in your pan. Just Before Dawn is one of those few nuggets.
My Rating: 5 Fingers!