In the Wee Small Hours… – Just Before Dawn (1981)

A group of college kids head out into the woods to do a little camping on some property that one of them has just inherited. They run into a forest ranger played by George Kennedy of all people, who warns them off from going up the mountain, but of course, with them knowing better, they do it anyway. It is not long before things start to go wrong with them hitting a deer, meeting a man who swears he is going to be killed and seeing a strange girl every now and then in the forest. Of course, they eventually start to die, killed by a couple of overly large hillbilly twins and from there it only remains to see who survives when all is said and done.

Just Before Dawn is another slasher that takes place out in the woods with more mountain men who may or may not be inbred, whom everyone seems to know about but chooses to ignore until people get too close and start getting killed. A familiar formula for sure, but one that gets a lot of miles on the big screen and when done right, like this one, turns out to be a lot of fun anyway. From start to finish, the film never lags nor loses the audience’s attention as they never know who is going to show up or get killed, especially as the movie starts out with one man being butchered with a very large machete. That would be just the first of many kills and while the victims all die rather violently, there is never all that much blood and no gore to speak of. For a slasher, it could have used just a bit more violence and yet with a combination of good storytelling, better than average acting and some good, old-fashioned suspense, Jeff Lieberman who directs this picture manages to make each murder maybe not quite surprising, but worth the wait.

Kennedy would be a nice addition to the cast no matter how small his role, his presence alone giving the film a bit of legitimacy from being just a random horror movie into something that might draw the crowds in. The rest of the cast including Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson and Jamie Rose among them would end up doing a fine job, conveying the necessary emotions to signify the terror that hunted them throughout the picture. Factor in the scenery and cinematography and the film would look both beautiful at times, but also convey both the immensity of the area the campers would find themselves in and the suffocation they would feel as it closed in around them in the dark as they were being killed off.

As it is, while Just Before Dawn would not add anything new to the genre, but it is a perfect example of how to do it right, even without overdoing it on the blood and gore. Definitely one to catch.

3 out of 5

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