Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Into The Woods

Year: 1981
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Cast: George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I hope you won't mind if I air out some personal grievances. Well I suppose it doesn't matter because, guess what, it's happening. I've been feeling a little generic lately, because every time I watch a slasher movie and come up with a numerical rating, it's inevitably within one star of the average rating out of 10 on IMDb. As a budding slasher connoisseur, it has been worrying to me that I've been hewing so close to the middle ground.

As a blogger, shouldn't I be holding some controversial opinions? Carving a pathway for people to follow instead of regurgitating how other people already feel? Well, the time has come. You see, the 1981 Jeff Lieberman effort Just Before Dawn has a reputation among those in the know as being an exemplary Golden Age slasher, but you know what? I kind of hated it.

Suck on THAT, imaginary consensus!

OK, maybe hate is a strong word. Just Before Dawn is a remarkably well-shot film with some cool moments, but that doesn't prevent it from being a plodding gauntlet of boredom.

The plot is about as generic as it gets. After two hillbilly hunters (one of whom is played by Mike Kellin of Sleepaway Camp) are attacked by a mysterious mountain man, one is left dead with a machete through the ass and the other is sent fleeing into the woods. He comes across an RV full of twenty-somethings who have come up for a killer camping trip and attempts to warn them away, but they refuse to listen. So far so Friday the 13th.

The Spam in a Van consist of Warren (Gregg Henry, who went on to have bit parts in James Gunn films, including Guardians of the Galaxy of all things), a balding, blonde nature enthusiast who is so clearly not in his early 20's that it looks like he might die of old age before the killer ever arrives; Connie (Deborah Benson), his terribly boring girlfriend who's not The Slutty One so she's obliged to be our Final Girl; Daniel (Ralph Seymour of Killer Party), a nerdy photographer who's surprisingly cute without his terrible 80's glasses; Jonathan (Chris Lemmon), his preppy douche brother who owns the land they'll be staying on and thus sees fit to litter on it; and Megan (Jamie Rose), the requisite 80's Ambassador with ginger hair crimped into oblivion and an obsession with her caramel cream make-up.

While the kiddos are having a blast camping, forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy, who would later appear in the slasher parody Wacko) is alerted to the danger and spends the rest of the film chasing after the kids, Ahab-like on his literal white steed.

Although if he'd left well enough alone, we might have rid the world of awful 80's fashions that much sooner.

Here's the thing about Just Before Dawn. It has the perfect slasher setup. Sure, it's been done before, but the sideshow slashers tend to be at their best when they're shamelessly derivative. But absolutely nothing happens for the first 40 minutes or so as the actors half-heartedly improvise Fun conversations and wander through the admittedly breathtaking forest locale. And when the slicin' and dicin' begins in earnest, most of it's offscreen and anticlimactic. Also the movie is far more impressed with its mid-film twist than I am: [the killer turns out to be two twin killers, who are revealed in the least emphatic way in the least interesting kill scene, used to no valuable ends, and foreshadowed with all the subtlety and nuance of a game of Centipede.]

There is an absolute dearth of good gore in this film, which isn't by itself an inadmissible sin. A goreless slasher can be amended by strong characters or tense sequences, but Just Before Dawn has neither. The characters are hopelessly generic, though performed with a mite more vigor and talent than the average splatter ensemble. And don't even get me started on the "tension" sequences, which squander a series of interesting set-ups with a resolute refusal to go to close-up and radio silence on the part of the composer.

It's like watching a concert from the back row while wearing earmuffs. You understand that you're supposed to be excited about something, but it's hard to be sure exactly why.

Ah yes, see, the blob is in danger of falling into the larger blob. Quite.

Other moments are so drawn out that they feel like you're watching the film in slow motion. One chase sequence in particular is so unbelievably wrought that my 12-year-old nephew could have outrun the massive rampaging mountain man without breaking a sweat.

There are some good moments in the film, but none of them relate to the horrors at hand. At any rate, the killer, with his incessant wheezing laugh and wacky Fourth Stooge hairpiece, renders his every appearance a farce with his deliriously unfunny antics. His full figure is shown far too early and far too often for there to be any amount of terror surrounding his scenes.

Everybody run! Run from crossing guard Paul Bunyan!

Anyway, about those good things. As I said earlier, the scenery is beautiful, and that doesn't amount to nothing. The setting is never creepy, but it's rendered with a great deal of actually talented cinematography, which is never something to discount in an 80's slasher film. Also, there are two (and only two) truly great kill moments. One, the very first in the film, is described in detail in the Best Kill segment. The other is so very special that I'll have to put it in spoiler bars, because it is the only thing that makes the film worth watching to any meaningful degree.

[When the carbon copy killer grabs Connie and attempts to bear hug her to death, she straight up shoves her fist down his throat and chokes him to death with her own knuckles. It's hardcore as hell and it's utterly delightful.]

There's also some feeble slaps at a theme, with the idea that nobody can truly own nature and that the forest will fight back against any attempts to control it. Also there was enough in the budget to afford Blondie's "Heart of Glass," so it can't be all bad.

But as reasons for watching a film go, these are all still pretty weak. Just Before Dawn is better-made than a lot of the crap slashers I have to watch, so I'll give it that, but it's so unimaginative, that I had to use a thesaurus to come up with more words for how bored I was. It's lackluster. It's mundane. It's banal. It's jejune.

But watch it if you want, I won't stop you. 

Killer: [The Mountain Twins (John Hunsaker)]
Final Girl: Connie (Deborah Benson)
Best Kill: Vachel is stabbed in the groin with a machete and it comes out of his ass on the other side.
Sign of the Times: Although this girl lives in the forest with her crazy inbred family, she still has hair feathered out into the stratosphere.

Scariest Moment: When Megan is swimming topless in the lake, the killer's hand reaches out to touch her. She sees her boyfriend on the shore and realizes that it's not him touching her.
Weirdest Moment: While Connie and Warren have a conversation, Dan pees in a bush behind them, his splashing urine overtaking the entire soundscape of the scene.
Champion Dialogue: "I told you to skidoot!"
Body Count: 6
  1. Vachel is stabbed in the butt with a machete.
  2. Jonathan is knocked over a waterfall. 
  3. Dan is stabbed in the gut.
  4. Megan is killed offscreen.
  5. Killer is shot to death.
  6. [Killer's Twin chokes to death on Connie's fist.]
TL;DR: Just Before Dawn has one or two classic slasher moments, but otherwise it's the bare minimum of what a teen splatter flick could be.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1332


  1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who was bored to death by this "must see" slasher.

    I feel like this is a slasher that appeals to the academic types, the film school types who know of the slasher formula and therefore can point to this as a solid example of that formula however what's missing is the element of fun.

    Yeah there is that quintessential definition of an 80s slasher being kids in the woods getting killed one by one but that's not why the subgenre is memorable. It's how fun they are that makes them such a good time and this one isn't fun at all

    Like you said, it's good filmmaking and follows the formula so that's why the cinema fan calls it a classic 80s slasher but as an actual 80s slasher it's just not enjoyable

    1. I think most people must just look at that Final Girl scene (which IS incredible) and scrub the rest from their minds immediately. It's the only explanation.