My fascination with summer camp-themed slasher fare stems mostly from two things: my deep-seeded love of all things freaky and frightening, and my tragically unfulfilled childhood desire to attend summer camp (and partly the raging jealousy that boiled inside me every summer when my older brothers were shipped off to camp while I was deemed “too young” to attend). There were a lot of influential horror movies from the monumental ‘80s slasher era that told terrifying, titillating and often tacky tales of young adults venturing out into the deepest, most ominous parts of the woods with a group of friends to get fucked up beyond all recognition. The stripping off of clothes and the revealing of supple young bodies was only the predecessor to the bloody carnage that was about to ensue. I think a lot of horror fans, like I, got an early introduction to our beloved genre by being subjected to iconic genre fare like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp during the impressionable years of our youth—and furthermore, dedicating our adult years to seeking out these titles and others just like them.
These movies are by no means brilliant works of creative, provocative cinematic genius, but they brought a lot of concepts and devices to the horror film chopping block that have stuck around through the proceeding decades and have become some of the most recognized and arguably admirable clichés in the genre. Some of these titles supersede others—offering up awe-inspiring special FX, buckets upon buckets of blood, mind-blowing climactic twists and quirky characters—but the true essence of a superlative summer camp slasher flick is a really bad ass killer. It goes without saying that most die-hard horror fans are suckers for these summer camp slasher flicks. So over the course of the summer, Diabolique will be presenting readers with a comprehensive catalogue of films that fall within that category. By watching these movies, you’ll learn everything you need to know in order to avoid being sliced & diced on those highly anticipated summer camping trips. Boys and girls, I present you with Diabolique’s Camp Carnage!
Just Before Dawn (1981) –
For this week’s installment of CAMPCARNAGE, Diabolique will be examining a title that dug its very own un-trekked path to the slaughtering campgrounds; a film that, to this day, still holds up as one of the most unique and unparalleled genre entries of the early ‘80s. Free of most typical slasher subgenre conventions—including gender stereotypes, excessive gore, annoying teenagers and the straight-forward summer camp background—the blood of Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn flows through a vein of its very own. Few horror films since the time of its release have managed to elicit such genre defying social subtext, so it is of no surprise that Just Before Dawn is regarded as one of the best entries in Lieberman’s varied filmography.
It was in 1979 that the world saw the release of one of John Carpenter’s breakthrough film in the horror genre—Halloween. Arguably, Halloween was the film that busted down the flood gates leading into the immense blood pool that was the slasher era of the 1980s—one of the most significant and storied decades in the history of horror, without a doubt. But prior to Halloween’s release and the official inauguration of a subgenre that blew up beyond belief, the term “slasher” was non-existent. That same year, Lieberman and crew were deep in the woods of Silver Falls State Park, Oregon, hard at work on the production of Just Before Dawn, where they drove at least an hour every day to reach their destination. Surrounded by flesh-eating horseflies and onerous terrain, all the while being stalked by a family of inbred backwoods rednecks led by a massive murderous mammoth of a man, the cast was pitted up against their fair share of challenges during the five-week shoot. But the finished product was well worth it, as the overcoming of the aforementioned obstacles resulted in one of the greatest survivalist/backwoodsmen horror films of all time.
The film opens with two middle-aged rednecks, presumably on a hunting trip, exploring a tiny chapel that they stumble upon in the brushy mountain side. One of these fellows is actually played by none other than Mike Kellin, who later went on to play Mel in Sleepaway Camp (which we will most definitely be covering in a future segment of CAMP CARNAGE) just a few years later. As Kellin’s character, Ty, heads outside to investigate a fire that inflames their vehicle, his buddy is hacked to death by a machete-wielding, mentally incapacitated brute. Shortly after, five 20-something-year-old friends make their way up the mountain to explore a piece of land that our main man, Warren (Gregg Henry), recently purchased. Kicking back and singing along to Blondie as they head up the mountain, they encounter a frantic and intoxicated Ty, rambling on about the brute that murdered his friend. Ty begs the group to take him with them, but they refuse, brushing him off as a nonsense-yammering drunk. Courteous enough to leave him a sandwich, they leave him in the bush to fend for his self. Then they run into the local authority figure, Roy McLean (George Kennedy) who warns them that it’s not safe where they’re going, although he doesn’t exactly elaborate, as you can imagine. Warren and friends ignore Roy’s warning and continue on their way. Arriving at the camp site just before sundown, Warren and Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) leave their lovely lady friends, Constance (Debra Benson) and Megan (Jamie Rose), as well as their mousy male counterpart, Daniel (Ralph Seymour), behind to set up camp while they head back to the RV to grab the rest of the supplies. This scene sets up the only few conventional jump scares that Lieberman used in the film. It is also the starting point for how Lieberman builds up the character of our leading lady, Constance—who is the fuel for the primary underlying subplot of Just Before Dawn.
Although to the unseasoned novice horror fan, Just Before Dawn could be interpreted as just another addition to the slasher-in-the-woods genre fare of the ‘80s, the film is really anything but that. Lieberman’s main source of inspiration for the movie was actually James Dickey’s Deliverance (both the novel and John Boormans’ film adaptation). Constance was actually created in the shadow of Deliverance’s Ed Gentry, memorably portrayed by Jon Voight. The relationship between the cinematography and the location that the film was shot at is what really sets Just Before Dawn apart from many similar films. The score was created with minimalism in mind as to not interfere with the natural sounds of the wild life, flowing rivers and crashing waterfalls of SilverFallsState Park—creating the sense of a voyeuristic experience with the characters in the movie. Lieberman truly captured the reality of the peril that Mother Nature exposes inexperienced campers to, combining it with the life-threatening scenario of invading the territory of a not-so-neighbourly family of inbred backwoods hicks. But you have to stop and think: who are the real bad guys in this situation—the city folk who saunter in acting like they own the place, blasting loud music and boozing it up into the wee hours of the night, or the intellectually inferior inbreds who have carved a life and a home in the woods, and would like to keep to themselves and live within their own definition of harmony?
As I briefly touched down on early in this review, the primary subplot of Just Before Dawn is the arc of Debra Benson’s character, Connie (Constance). In the beginning, the audience is introduced to her as the sort of meek, quiet good-girl-next-door type—hair done up in a tight bun, little-to-no makeup on her face, loosely fitted slacks and a blouse buttoned right up to her neck. A jump scare in the woods early in the film leaves her feeling scared and helpless, unable to take action with the knife she clenches tightly in her hand. Without going into too much more detail regarding the transition of her character, I will say that by the time the finale rolls around, Constance is kicking ass and taking names. Just Before Dawn is a refreshing change of pace from the countless horror films that depict women—breasts bared and vocal cords screeching out their last desperate pleas for life—as the primary targets of serial killers and psychopaths.
The first time I viewed Just Before Dawn, the film carved its machete blade deep in my horror loving heart. It has so much more going for it than most people give it credit for. I can only hope that based on this installment of CAMP CARNAGE, more people will seek it out and give it the real chance it deserves.
– By Lacey Paige
Lacey is a devoted horror enthuasiast and movie collector. A recent journalism school graduate, she is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique, Cinesploitation, Absolute Underground and Fangoria. She likes taking long walks in dark, eerie places; reading true crime and horror fiction; and sharing her borderline-obsessive love of horror with just about anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter @LaceyPaige88