Just Before Dawn (1981)

Rating: C+

Dir: Jeff Lieberman
Star: Deborah Benson-Wald, Gregg Henry, George Kennedy, Jamie Rose

Five teens. One forest. And a homicidal killer. Ah, the simple joys of 1980’s slasher films. [Although, going by Wrong Turn, its cheap and cheerful recipe still appeals in the third millennium.] Here, they’re off on a weekend of camping and mountaineering, ignoring the dire warnings of a drunken hunter they meet on the road and the local park ranger (Kennedy), not to mention the audience, who have already seen one guy take a very large knife through the lower intestines and out the seat of his pants. Ouch. Unfortunately, this sets high expectations in the “imaginative deaths” department, to which the rest of the film has difficulties living up. One of the victims even bites the dust off-screen, a heinous cop-out hard to forgive.

On the plus side, Lieberman does a better job than usual of providing characters who do not have a number tattooed on their forehead, corresponding to their order of dispatch, though skinny-dipping remains a major cause of death, as ever. And while composer Brad Fiedel went on to score the likes of the Terminator films, the use of silence is effective and unnerving, and the location – Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park – is equally evocative. Constance (Benson-Wald) has a nice character arc, reminiscent of Ash in The Evil Dead, changing from wimp to heroine. In the end, however, the script seems to run out of sensible ideas, with the final dispatch in particular making a poor fist of things…and that’s a phrase chosen with particular care. Certainly better than I expected, but not as good as it could, and probably should, have been.