Friday, April 5, 2013

Worth Mentioning - The Backwoods' Darkest Hour

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody discusses one of his favorite slashers.


1981 was a big year for slasher films. Theatres were flooded with new entries in the subgenre that year, and among the deluge were some of the best and most respected slasher flicks to come out of the entire decade: Friday the 13th Part 2, My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, The Funhouse, Halloween II, Bloody Birthday, Hell Night, The Prowler, and Jeff Lieberman's Just Before Dawn.

Lieberman was no stranger to horror when he set out to make Just Before Dawn. His feature directorial debut had been 1976's awesome killer worm movie Squirm, and he had followed that up with Blue Sunshine (about bald maniacs going batshit) and a TV movie version of the Frankenstein story. 1981 was the perfect time for his take on the backwoods slasher.

The first characters we meet in the film are hunters Ty and Vachel. They've caught a deer, Ty is catching a hell of a buzz from the booze he's swilling, now as soon as they steal a decoration from inside an old, abandoned church they've stumbled across so Vachel can take his wife home a present, they'll be ready to head out of the wilderness. But taking this sidetrack of thievery turns out to be a deadly mistake when a hulking, giggling, machete-wielding mountain man shows up.

Ty, who manages to survive this encounter and escape into the woods, is played by character actor Mike Kellin. Kellin had been working steadily since 1950, but of his 102 credits he might be best known (and certainly is to me) as Mel, the teenage counselor-dating creep of a camp owner from the 1983 slasher Sleepaway Camp, which was actually the last movie he worked on before he passed away in the summer of '83.

Most of the film centers on the next set of characters who show up, a group of five young friends who roll into the forest in their RV with Blondie's "Heart of Glass" blasting on the radio. The driver, veteran outdoorsman Warren, has recently bought property in the movie's mountainous wilderness setting and has come to check out his new land with his girlfriend Constance (Connie for short), a nice tomboy-next-door sort, and their pals; the fun-loving Jonathan, his nerdy photography enthusiast brother Daniel, and Jonathan's girlfriend Megan. As they go deeper and deeper into the wilderness, and further up the mountain, they receive warnings from a Forest Ranger played by George Kennedy, who doesn't expect them to be able to come back down off the mountain, from the running-for-his-life Ty, who incoherently goes on about being chased by demons, and from a shotgun-toting local who tells them to "skidoot" before they "raise the devil". Being characters in a slasher movie, they ignore all of these warnings and continue on with their camping plans.

Soon enough, the young group's idyllic vacation has become the camping trip from hell, as they fall prey to the murderous mountain man one-by-one. Sometimes the killer seems to have the ability to be in two places at once, or to cover distances surprisingly quickly... You know, there does seem to be a lot of twins in this area...

Lieberman was drawing from 1972's Deliverance as his main source of inspiration when putting together Just Before Dawn, and you can see traces of it in the finished film, from the setting to the portrayal of the mountain-dwellers, and there are even some vague character similarities.

The film works as well as it does thanks to the atmosphere of creepy isolation Lieberman and cinematographer Joel King (who shares credit with his late brother Dean) got out of the locations. It's a slow build that still feels like it moves at a good pace, and the stalking and attack scenes are effective and exciting.

The characters are likeable and well written, and the cast is very good, from the previously mentioned Kellin and Kennedy to Gregg Henry (who would go on to be the hilarious Mayor in 2006's Slither) as Warren, Chris "son of Jack" Lemmon as Jonathan, Ralph Seymour as Daniel, Jamie Rose as Megan, and Kati Powell as a mountain girl named Merry Cat. Though Lieberman says on his audio commentary that Hap Oslund, the local who tells the group to skidoot, was frustrating to work with, I quite enjoy his performance. The unnamed slasher(s) is (are) played by John Hunsaker.

Deborah Benson does great work as our Final Girl heroine Connie, who's given a character arc over the course of which she has to tap into her primal nature to survive the ordeal she finds herself in. She starts off wearing a flannel shirt and khaki pants, her hair pulled back, and by the end of the film she'll have let her hair down, danced around the campfire, tied her unbuttoned blouse at the navel, put on short shorts that barely do the job of keeping her bum covered, and wrestled with some maniacs.

The score was provided by Brad Fiedel, best known for the work he'd go on to do on The Terminator. I like the music in this, especially the element of a haunting whistle sound, inspired by the characters' repeated use of a rescue whistle.

The film was shot in Oregon's Silver Falls State Park and features some locations that are amazing to look at, while at the same time being ones that you would definitely not want to be trapped in.

I've been a fan of Just Before Dawn for several years now, having first discovered it on VHS in the mid-'90s and having owned its special edition DVD since its release in 2005. Within hours of this post going up, I'll be attending the latest Cinema Wasteland convention, and one of the main draws for this spring's show is a JBD reunion of Jeff Lieberman and his actors Chris Lemmon and Jamie Rose. (Deborah Benson was booked but had to cancel.) They'll be there to meet with fans all weekend and will be doing a Q&A panel tonight. I'm very much looking forward to it.

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