“If you go down to the woods today” – Rediscovering ‘Just Before Dawn’ (US 1981 – 102 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - November 18, 2014
“If you go down to the woods today” – Rediscovering ‘Just Before Dawn’ (US 1981 – 102 mins)

An above average take on a plot we’ve seen a thousand times, the suspenseful slasher ‘Just Before Dawn’, has rightfully gone from a sleeper to a minor cult over the years. It has a genuine air of dread and is both competently acted and quite beautifully shot.

Five campers; Warren (Gregg Henry) his girlfriend Connie (Deborah Benson), Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) and his girlfriend Megan (Jamie Rose) and Jonathan’s brother Daniel (Ralph Seymour), arrive in the Oregon mountains to check out a property one of them has inherited. After warnings by the local ranger (George Kennedy), are ignored, they start meeting their fate at the hands of a large machete-wielding maniac.

Although it comprises quite a few clichés including skinny dipping teens and ‘Deliverance’ style inbred villains, the ending packs a punch (literally!), with Connie forcing her fist down the throat of one of the villains in what is to me one of the most memorable moments of the entire slasher era. There is also a neat killer twist midway in, which really ups the deadly ante.

The largely unfamiliar cast does some fine work here. Chris Lemmon (son of Jack) gets put through the horror mill, although he would later stay mainly in comedy roles. Gregg Henry went on to appear in a handful of Brian De Palma movies including ‘Scarface’ (’83) and ‘Raising Cain’ (’92). Likable lead Deborah Benson, who plays Connie, gives the films best performance and is very impressive as the final girl-turned executioner. Benson stayed mainly in television, having minor parts in ‘Dallas’, ‘Knots Landing’ and ‘Falcon Crest’. Red-headed Jamie Rose has also had a steady television career that’s still going strong. There is also some reliable support from veterans George Kennedy as a forest ranger, and Mike Kellin as a local hunter.

Director Jeff Lieberman did a very good job here, making excellent use of the Oregon wilderness. The cinematography is above average for the genre, with the mountain scenery and its waterfall backdrop quite stunning at times. Lieberman had earlier wrote and directed the cult horrors ‘Squirm’ (’76) and ‘Blue Sunshine’ (’78). It does drag here and there, but there are some tense moments and decent killings, including the first machete stabbing which is fairly graphic (and below the belt!). The music score by future ‘Terminator’ composer Brad Fiedel is suitably foreboding, using ominous electronic sounds and eerie whistles.

Slicker than others of its type and certainly better made, ‘Just Before Dawn’ is a solid backwoods horror with an unsettling atmosphere, notable villains and a memorable climax, making it one of the most under-rated of all the 80’s horror films.

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1 Comment on "“If you go down to the woods today” – Rediscovering ‘Just Before Dawn’ (US 1981 – 102 mins)"

  • Simon

    Just Before Dawn is one of the most enjoyable efforts of its genre, and a major influence on later films such as Wrong Turn. Like you mentioned, the killer twist is memorable.

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