Just Before Dawn begins with a man (Sleepaway Camp’s Mike Kellin) and his nephew hunting in the woods when they happen upon an old abandoned church. While checking out the church, the uncle catches a glimpse at what appears to be a fat, dirty, sweaty guy staring at him from a hole in the roof. After running outside to see where this mysterious man has gone, the nephew is impaled in the gut by a machete by said cackling fat, dirty, sweaty guy. And so begins the awesomeness that is Just Before Dawn.
A group of five friends heads into the woods to check out land that one of them inherited. On their way up, the group cross paths with a wise, old forest ranger (Cool Hand Luke’s George Kennedy) telling them that they shouldn’t continue on their way: “At least tell me where you’re going, so that when you don’t come back, I’ll know how to fill out the report.” They, of course, forget about what he says, and continue on their merry way, only to be picked off one by one by a giant machete-wielding maniac (you’ve heard of that one before, right?)
But what is it that makes this film awesome? In many respects, Just Before Dawn is your typical don’t-go-in-the-woods slasher flick: Teenage friends in the woods, a group of locals telling them to turn around, strange noises coming from all over. It’s all the same. We’ve seen this before. But it does it so well! I think it’s because the film was created before the genre had time to develop the same old clichés, which leaves the film fresh and original with each new viewing.
None of the characters piss you off. It’s as if they all have reason to be in the woods without being promoted only as the killer’s bait (even though they pretty much end up as such). They’re all pretty likable, and you end up rooting for them before their likely demise. The killer, described as “demon” and “devil,” isn’t hidden behind a mask, or caught lurking behind trees, but is seen in broad daylight, and doesn’t try to hide his bumbling yet creepy grandeur.
And, of course, with every great slasher, comes the twist. And what a twist! (I actually needed to rewind the disc to see if I had missed something.) And watching it a second time, you can actually see how the script provides viewers with hints as to how this demon may not be alone in the course of the story.
For horror fans, this is a must own! Watch it with the lights down. You won’t be sorry.
Reviewed by Eric Hatch