We're leaving our neighborhood and going deep into the woods for the eleventh movie of our 13 Movies of Halloween series: 1981's "Just Before Dawn."
"Just Before Dawn" is a great entry into that Bad Stuff Happens in the Boondocks subgenre made popular by "Deliverance" in 1972 and solidified as a reliable source of horror by "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" in 1974. It's also a great addition to the subgenre of Giant Giggling Psycho with a Machete, where I'm pretty sure it's the only entry.
Right away, "Just Before Dawn" looks great. It could be a how-to on nature photography, and that look holds up after 40 years. That cinematography is as much part of the production design as it is a character in the movie: the forest swallows up our cast of characters, surrounding them with unfamiliar noises and movements, offering no escape.
That's basically the story of "Just Before Dawn," too. A group of friends go deep into the woods of Oregon to claim a tract of land one of them has inherited (this is never explained, by the way; I guess you can just claim ownership of part of a mountain in the world of the movie). On their way to drinking and partying all weekend they run into a hunter who has just seen his nephew get bumped off by the aforementioned Giant Giggling Psycho with a Machete. The group, of course, doesn't listen, and soon find themselves going up against that same Giant Giggling Psycho with a Machete.
That's where "Just Before Dawn" starts delivering its subtle environmentalist message, placing characters in Lacoste polos and designer sunglasses at the bottom of the food chain once they get off the beaten path in their RV. One of the leads even comes right out and says "we don't belong here." By then, though, it might be too late for the stern amateur botanist forest ranger who also lives out in the woods to rescue them on horseback in the hours just before dawn.
If you're queasy about gore and on-screen violence, good news: "Just Before Dawn" doesn't have much of either. Instead, it thrives on a feeling of menace and impending doom it sets up in an excellent first scene with the nephew and uncle ransacking an old church, only to look up at a hole in the roof and find themselves being watched by a grinning mountain of a man. The uncle goes outside to have a look around, and it's not long before he sees what looks like a prehistoric monster step out of the church, putting on his nephew's bloody clothes. That sequence perfectly sets the tone for what you can expect from the rest of the movie.
Callie and I give "Just Before Dawn" four stars for successfully giving us the creeps going into the homestretch of the 13 Movies of Halloween. For our next review we'll be staying put deep in the woods for "Pumpkinhead."
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