ABCs of Horror: “J” Is for Just Before Dawn (1981)

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ABCs of Horror: “J” Is for Just Before Dawn (1981)

Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?

The basic structure of slasher cinema has been relatively unchanged since the mid-1970s, meaning that perhaps more than any other horror subgenre, slasher movies benefit from additional gimmicks to set them apart from one another. In many cases, these gimmicks are novel locations to set a horror film—say, an abandoned hospital in Halloween II, or a traveling carnival in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. As the genre entered its unstoppably prolific golden era in the early 1980s, that meant studios were falling over themselves to produce slasher films happening in every conceivable locale—but “the great outdoors” was always a particularly popular choice, given its seclusion from mankind and the practical fact that one doesn’t needs traditional (and expensive) sets in the depths of an atmospheric forest. There are so many outdoorsy slashers, in fact, that it has its own major sub-sub-genre of “summer camp” horror, from Friday the 13th and The Burning to Sleepaway Camp.

All of those films undeniably take place on the edges of the map, away from the lights and prying eyes of the city. But none of them really captures the mystery and terror of the wilderness like 1981’s Just Before Dawn. Where the likes of Friday the 13th take place in locales perched on the edge of well-trodden woods, where nature-curious white folks can tromp and arrogantly picture themselves as outdoorsmen or adventurers, Just Before Dawn descends into the real forest, where undocumented families live off the grid in tar paper shacks and a blood-curdling scream can trail off into the night without another soul hearing it. This is a slasher film utterly defined by its uniquely mysterious and beautiful location, a factor that elevates a run-of-the-mill story into something truly unique. As one of the characters literally says out loud: “Where we’re going is no summer camp.”

The location in question: Silver Falls State Park, a slice of the Oregonian Pacific Northwest that offers up some of the more beautiful nature photography you’re ever going to see in a horror movie. Considering the low aims of this standard slasher plot, the result is almost unaccountably beautiful, just thanks to locations such as huge, cascading waterfalls and rickety rope bridges. Thematically, it lends power to the idea that this group of young people must pay for the crime of disrespecting the sanctity of this place, because this place looks worthy of somehow summoning a demented killer to it.

Our characters are a gaggle of by-the-numbers college kids, heading up into the park where one of them has apparently inherited a plot of land. They’re unprepared, naturally, for how removed from civilization the park really is, and place entirely too much credence in a piece of paper’s ability to let them claim ownership of an area where decidedly unsocial people are already living. The grizzled forest ranger Roy (George Kennedy, of The Naked Gun fame) attempts to warn them of this fact, but they press on ahead, noting that there’s evidence of habitation in the hills. Of course, they don’t know the half of it.

Our killer, meanwhile, is your standard hulking madman, an unhinged psychopath who whistles eerily in the darkness and brays like a hyena while killing, but is protected anyway by a backwoods family that understands full well just how disturbed he really is. The family, in this case, is a prisoner of whatever force drove them out into the wilderness in the first place, and even if they recognize that evil exists within the family, there is no alternative—it becomes clear that these people would rather die than rejoin modern society. They may not all want to kill the deluded hikers who stumble into their woods, but they’re also not going to lift a finger to prevent it.

Just Before Dawn is, in several ways, a non-standard entry for the genre for the early 1980s, holding itself with a certain bleak seriousness that favors atmosphere over overt goriness, outside of one notable kill that comes early on. It doesn’t prioritize “fun,” comedy or titillation, having only one scene that is an obvious concession to the idea that all slashers will feature bared breasts, but even in that scene the film is simultaneously offering creative cinematography that is playing with depth of field to insert suspense. Instead, one is more likely to note the somber mood, ethereal musical score and low-budget rawness of it all—a feeling that makes Just Before Dawn feel a bit like a recovered artifact. The sometimes gauzy-looking picture and sound quality only accentuate this, of course.

Set in some other location, Just Before Dawn would be a slasher film only likely to be remembered for the fact that its final girl dispatches its killer in a way that ranks among the strangest and least realistic that the genre has ever seen. With the majesty of Silver Falls State Park to reinforce it, however, the film rises above its modest means to project an eeriness that is not easily shaken. In the canon of “great outdoors” horror films, none have ever benefited from the beauty of their setting quite as much.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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