This year’s Halloween Horrors series features 8 contributors joining our yearly event for their first time! We’ve already been introduced to one, so let’s meet the second!
Please welcome Elliott Elliott to this year’s line-up. Per his own write-up, Elliott is a comedian, writer, movie watcher, and avid soda drinker. Normally, when I know little about a contributor, I just tend to make things up, but I’m not sure there is more to add to that list that will draw more attention than “avid soda drinker”. Hell, I’m all of those things too, but no one pays me to be funny. Or to drink vast amounts of soda. Okay, they aren’t paying me to write either.
For his Halloween Horrors debut, Elliott has claimed one of the more overlooked slashers of the 1980’s. As this series also serves as a “recommendations list” of sorts, this hidden gem may be one that you’ll want to add to your own Halloween watchlist. Thank you, Elliott, for helping us with this year’s event!!
Elliott can be found on most social media @yeselliott
Just Before Dawn
Just Before Dawn is a 1981 backpack ‘n slash film in the vein of Rituals and The Final Terror. Directed by Jeff Lieberman of Blue Sunshine and Squirm fame, it’s probably the most entertaining of his films.
We are going to get spoilery here, so you should probably go watch the movie if that is going to bother you!
We start off with Vachel (keep that in mind next time your old man wants to complain about “names dees days”) and Ty drunk exploring an old church after a successful deer hunt. Ty is played by Mike Kellen, aka “Mel” from Sleepaway Camp, so you know he is going to be bringing some quality mania to the proceedings! Ty thinks he sees someone lurking on the roof of the church, so he goes out in the woods to check it out. While Ty is hanging out with the trees, their truck comes rolling down the hill, hits a tree, and explodes like it was drenched with gasoline. As Vachel is coming to check out the scene, he gets bumped off by a big dude with a machete, and Ty takes off into the woods.
At this point we meet our campers. Warren in his trucker hat (played by Gregg Henry), his outdoorsy lady friend Connie (Deborah Benson), generic dude Jonathan (Chris Lemmon), his makeup obsessed girlfriend Megan (Jamie Rose), and Jonathan’s photo happy brother Daniel (Ralph Seymour, who you may remember as the guy who Francis paid to steal Pee-Wee’s bike in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.) They are all fairly likable.
As they drive into the mountains, Daniel makes references to seeing lots of “Geminis” as they listen to “Heart Of Glass” by Blondie to remind you that, yes, this movie was in fact made in 1981. Their disco Winnebago party is interrupted when they run into a park ranger named “Roy”, who warns them about the mountain being dangerous and tries to talk them out of going up there.
“Roy” is played by George Kennedy. At this point you may wonder why I am putting quotes around “Roy”. Well, gang, that is just the way it is in the opening credits. This makes me wonder if “Roy” is even his real name. Maybe Roy isn’t Roy. Maybe he has a dark past. Maybe he’s hidden some bodies! Maybe he’s D.B. Cooper! The film doesn’t dig any deeper into the mystery of quote unquote Roy, so I guess I’ll just let it go and get back to writing this.
You may be thinking “Roy seems like a calm oracle of doom. Usually they are crazier”. Well, hold onto your hats because ya’ll forgot about Ty! As our gang of campers pull off the road after Daniel spots something (he doesn’t know what, no matter how many times Warren asks him), they are accosted by Ty drunkenly ranting about demons and how they have to get out of there. This is the oracle of doom we deserve! Ty begs to ride with them in their camper, but they blow him off and drive away. Connie brings up how he will starve, so Daniel tosses him a couple of sandwiches as if that is all this clearly crazy dude needs to survive in the woods. Ty drunkenly watches them drive away. He sees the big guy who iced his nephew climbing up the back of the camper! He laughs like a madman at this.
At this point we do some of our usual outdoor adventure stuff like hiking, gawking at waterfalls, and crossing a sketchy assed rope bridge. We get the traditional “something in the woods” scene. Constance thinks she sees something else, but is frozen in fear. Dan pulls out a knife and Megan grabs and yells at the mystery noise to reveal itself. Oh, it’s just Warren and John coming from the opposite direction of the noise! Connie thinks she sees something else, but just lets it go.
The next day, they spot a girl down by the water singing and they try and talk to her but she takes off. Later, weirdo woods girl!
Megan and Jonathan go skinny dipping and our boy Johnny takes multiple chances to try and scare Megan. We see our killer enter the water behind them. John disappears under the water again and Megan assumes it’s his hand molesticating her, until she sees him get out of the water across the shore, so she panics and escapes to shore herself. I guess she writes this off as being a fish or something getting all handsy, because everything pretty much goes back to being fine after that.
Ty manages to stumble to “Roy’s” house and warns him about the “demon” who murdered his nephew. Our man “Roy” (if that is his real name) rides off on his horse to find our campers and warn them about the murderer.
We soon get “around the campfire disco dancing” to remind us, again, that it is 1981. Sadly, the dance is interrupted by an old man and two younger girls from the woods having their own “disco demolition night” by shooting the boombox… rather then just yelling “DISCO SUCKS”. The old man tells them to leave before they stir up the devil. They ignore these weirdos and let them know they are staying. The woods-people head back into the woods.
Jonathan spots one of the young woods girls as he wanders around the next day. She tells him her name is Merry Cat, and that the other young girl with the old man is her “moma” (CREEPY!). She tries to put the moves on our boy with a kiss, but like a class act he rejects her and she takes off. Jonathan chases after her and catches up to her at the creek side. She gets scared by something and Jonathan assumes it’s the rope bridge. I’m not sure why he would make that assumption. I mean she lives out there. She should be more used to that sketchy ass bridge then he is. Anyway. It’s not the bridge that she’s scared of. It’s one of the big, what we can now assume are inbred, dudes! The giant cuts John’s hand and then he cuts the bridge! Jonathan starts climbing up the other side, but when he gets there, he finds another giant inbred dude! It’s TWIN MAGIC (a callback to Daniel talking about “Geminis” earlier in the film!)! He knocks him down into the creek where he drowns.
Megan and Daniel have found the old church and are chased outside by the smell. They think they hear Jonathan coming, so they kiss to mess with him. Sadly, Daniel left his glasses in the church and is blind as a bat, so he doesn’t realize it’s not his brother until our killer is within stabbing range. Needless to say, this doesn’t end well for Daniel.
It seems like we are about to get some Connie and Warren water sex, but they get cockblocked by Jonathan’s corpse floating into them.
Megan has run back into the church where she meets our other brother and he takes care of her while his creepy twin takes photos with Daniel’s camera.
Warren and Connie decide they are going to find the woods family and ask them to give them a hand. They find them with little to no trouble, despite how big the woods seem in this movie. As one would expect from woods people, they just threaten them with a gun. I think they still might be mad about the disco party.
The happy couple return to the campsite and Warren goes to find the keys to the camper that Jonathan had in his pocket. This is where he runs into the body of Daniel and freaks the eff out, ushering in the worthless Warren period of the film.
“Roy” comes across the woods family’s house and “Pa Woodsguy” acts like he hasn’t seen anything. Merry Cat comes out and tries to let “Roy” know the deal, but she is dragged back in by her sister-mom. Pa just tells them, “she’s just a frightened child”, in what is an amazingly bad lie. We hear a scene that sounds like it might be some backwoods child abuse going down, where we learn the murderers are part of the family; Merry Cat’s brothers! Merry Cat escapes and catches up with “Roy” and lets him know the deal.
Connie is back at the camp waiting for Warren when one of the brothers shows up with Jonathan’s whistle and chases her up the tree, whistling the whole time. As she screams for Warren, brother 1 (Or is it brother 2? I’m sorry I haven’t bothered to name them.) starts cutting the tree down with his machete. Once the tree falls, Connie starts crawling away and our man “Roy” shows up and blasts his ass with a shotgun.
Everyone assumes it’s the end of everything, since apparently Merry Cat kept her mouth shut about the whole twin magic thing, and Connie and Warren just go back to packing up their camp like nothing is wrong. Warren has lost his shit and he is blubbering about how his friends are not dead, they are just lost. Connie puts on her best sexy girl makeup just in time for Brother 2 to show up and try and finish the job. Warren cries uselessly and Connie steps up and fulfills her duty as the “final girl” by fisting the huge dude’s throat until he dies! Merry Cat comes out of the woods and has a stare down with Connie, who is standing there all badass with her fist covered in inbreed throat juice. Merry Cat takes off knowing she wants none of that!
Connie is a super interesting final girl. She lacks that obnoxiously virginal quality most of them go overboard with. You feel like Connie may have had sex like a normal person at some point, and even seems to become more sexual as the film goes on. This whole aspect of the film was better covered by Patrick Bromley in an article for Bloody Disgusting (https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3500230/editorial-revisiting-just-dawn-underrated-slasher-unconventional-final-girl/)
There is a ton I like about this movie. It’s a really well made film with lots of beautiful nature shots. Overall ,other than maybe some very close competition by 1977’s Rituals (which depending on my mood I might like a bit better), I’d say Just Before Dawn is probably the best Backpack n Slash film out there.