This is a gem. It's got the same tropes and stereotypes as every other slasher film of the era, but it's just executed so effectively. Five kids head into the mountains of Oregon, as their de facto leader Warren has acquired a plot there, and they plan on camping on the land, you know, just to check it out. It is established early on that Warren, an experienced scout, is the key to the others surviving in the deep, impenetrable forest.
Along the way they meet a ranger played by veteran actor George Kennedy, who warns them not to proceed further. In true early slasher fashion, they ignore his warning and head up the mountain anyhow. Further down the road they meet a drunkard (Mike Kellin of Sleepaway Camp) who's just witnessed his nephew's murder. He begs the group for help, but in his incoherent mumblings, they ignore him and drive away.
They set up camp, play some jokes on each other, and whilst dancing (to some swanky electro-funk)around the campfire their first night, they are visited by an old backwoods man, shotgun in hand, along with his wife and daughter. He ominously threatens the group with the gun, saying that if they do not leave that night, they will wake "the devil". This is three warnings, folks. THREE. Yet the group remains defiant and stay on the mountain.
Well, some 300 pound oafish motherfucker in a checkered shirt and mask starts eliminating the group. Go figure. There are however, many twists in this movie, which I won't spoil, that are from left field and thus highly welcome in this sort of film.
The score was achieved as the composer whistled and blew into his microphone, and though its used sparsely throughout the feature, it is imposing and spooky. Added to the lush cinematography and wonderful location scouting, it creates the kind of atmosphere that DEFINES good horror. Gloomy, claustrophobic, and oppressive. The editing is pretty poor, I have to admit. The script is meh, pretty much standard fare for this sort of thing, and the acting, for the most part, mimics this. However two actors stand out: Gregg Henry as Warren and Deborah Benson as Constance. These two characters start at one point and end up completely transformed by the end. It's a great narrative arc, and seeing their gender roles slowly erode in the shadow of an imminent threat is truly unique.
Despite its clichés, Just Before Dawn is one of the finest, if not obscure, examples of the slasher genre. One part Friday the 13th (though the director has shown nothing but disdain for that film) and one part Deliverance (from which its inspired), this is a great addition to the hixploitation slasher subgenre. 7/10
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