Probably the most beautifully shot and competently-acted "killer in the woods " film from the early 1980s, Just Before Dawn is a must-see for slasher fans.
Directed by Jeff Lieberman, and featuring likeable performances by lead Deborah Benson and supporting co-star Chris Lemmon (Jack's son), Just Before Dawn was filmed on location at Silver Falls State Park in Oregon, making exceptional use of the impressive scenery.
Two men who have just been hunting are checking out an abandoned church. Ty (Mike Kellin) and his nephew Vechel (Charles Bartlett) are getting ready to head back to their families. Ty, who's been drinking heavily, catches a glimpse of someone staring at them through an opening on the roof.
He goes outside to see who it is and is momentarily distracted by their pickup truck which rolls downhill. It's too late to stop it and the vehicle crashes into a tree, going up in flames. Meanwhile, Vechel opens a door in the church and a grotesque figure (played by John Hunsaker) holds up a saw to his face. Then the stranger takes the weapon and jabs it through the young man's...shall we say...private area?
In the distance, Ty can see the killer leaving the church wearing his nephew's hat and vest - and initially thinks it is Vechel. When he realizes the man is not who he thinks it is, he runs off into the forest.
A group of young men and women are traveling in a winnebago towards the mountains. Warren (Gregg Henry) and his girl Connie (Deborah Benson), Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) and his girlfriend Megan (Jamie Rose) and Jonathan's brother Daniel (Ralph Seymour), drive past some locals living in poverty.
"I wonder why there's so many twins around here?" Daniel asks. Warren responds with an irreverent comment about incest. Not having ever been this high up in altitude, the group is excited. "4,000 feet of granite, water and wood. Nowhere to climb and the idea is to become part of the mountain...to try and find its soul," Warren says.
Their fun is suddenly interrupted by a deer that crosses the vehicle's path. They hit the animal, but when Warren goes to check up on it, there's nothing there. He sees a shuffling in the bushes and assumes the deer is alright, which alleviates his girlfriend's panic. They continue on their way.
Roy McLean (George Kennedy), a forest ranger, lives in the area and sees the them driving by his house. He comes out and demands to know where the group is going. He's told they're going up to Silver Lake to check out some land one of them has inherited. Roy gives them the old "you've been warned" speech.
They continue on but Daniel asks Warren to stop when he thinks he sees someone nearby. During a search, the group doesn't find anyone. As they head back towards the vehicle, Ty jumps out at them. Sounding nuttier than a fruitcake and drunk to boot, he tells them his nephew is still up in the mountain and that he couldn't save him. The old man insists on riding with the group, but they decide not to take him with them. Ty gets the last laugh however, when he sees his nephew's killer jump on top of the winnebego as it pulls away.
The friends reach their destination and get out to hike the rest of the way, unaware that a killer has hitched his way along with them. The area is breathtaking, with its lakes and scenery. After finding a spot to spend the night, Warren and Jonathan head back to the car to get the rest of their stuff. Connie gets a bad feeling and tells Warren that maybe they should let the forest ranger know where they are. He tells her not to worry about anything.
Night falls and the two men haven't returned. Daniel, Constance and Megan are sitting around the fire and are frightened by some noises they hear in the bushes and trees surrounding them. Megan picks up a knife and demands that the person watching them show himself. Of course it's a prank and Warren and Jonathan jump out at them. Connie is not amused.
The next morning, Warren apologizes to his girlfriend who's upset that she was too scared to react the previous night. After all, what if there were really someone or something out there, she tells him.
During their hike, the group sees a girl singing by the lake. When they call out to her, she runs away. Connie thinks that perhaps Daniel's camera scared her off.
They continue on, following Warren's lead across a precarious rope bridge.
After climbing down to the lake with its spectacular waterfall in the background, Megan and Jonathan go for a swim. They fool around, unaware that the killer is in the water with them.
At one point, Megan feels someone grabbing at her from underneath. She first thinks it's Jonathan but soon realizes that he is in the distance at the shore. Megan screams and runs into her boyfriend's arms.
In the evening, Roy finds Ty outside of his house. Ty tells him that his nephew was murdered by a "demon" up in the mountain and that the kids he ran into will face the same fate.
They didn't listen to his warning he says. Although Ty didn't see the murder, he tells Roy he heard Vechel's screams and saw blood. He describes the killer as unusually big and "built like that mountain up there."
The "kids" are having a good time around the campfire, dancing to the music from a tape player they've brought along. Connie even lets her hair down and boogies. Suddenly their fun is interrupted when a gunshot destroys the player. Pa Logan (Hap Oslund), one of the locals, tells them to get off the land. He's accompanied by Ma Logan (Barbara Spencer) and their daughter "Merry Cat" (Katie Powell), the same girl the friends saw at the lake the day before. The old man tells them they'll "raise the devil."
Connie is unnerved and says they should leave. Roy has the same thought and heads up to the mountain to find them.
Morning comes and Megan finds her make-up missing. Thinking that a raccoon was responsible, she sends Jonathan out to find it. What he finds instead is the young Logan girl, her face smeared with Megan's make-up.
She tells him she saw him swimming naked in the lake but didn't tell her Pa because "he wouldn't like it." Jonathan mistakenly asks if her sister would like it and the girl tells him the woman is actually her mother. (An honest mistake since the women seemed so close in age.)
Merry Cat can't resist the urge to kiss him and runs off. He follows her to the bridge but senses the girl is afraid to cross it. As he's showing her how to do it, the killer appears on the bridge with him and cuts his hand with a machete. He then cuts the ropes and Jonathan drops to the water below.
Jonathan frantically blows a whistle for help. Although Daniel, Megan and Connie hear it, they don't seem to take it seriously. Daniel goes off to take pictures and says if he runs into Jonathan, he'll send him back to the camp.
Meanwhile, Jonathan tries to climb out of the lake. He makes it to the top of a huge rock - but the killer is already there and knocks him back down into the water.
While Warren and Connie are in the lake searching for fish, Jonathan's body appears. Warren tries in vein to resuscitate him but it's too late. Connie is sure he was murdered but Warren is in denial and thinks he might have just fallen off the bridge.
Daniel finds the abandoned church and enters it. He runs into Megan who's out looking for Jonathan. She decides to take a brake from her search and lets Daniel photograph her. When he realizes his glasses are missing, he and Megan believe that his brother is playing a trick on them. The two make out in the hope that Jonathan will show his face.
Unable to see clearly, Daniel thinks that the trick is working. He sees someone approach them from behind Megan. But that someone is the killer who promptly dispatches him with a huge knife.
Megan runs into the church and shuts the door. Through a broken window she can see the killer just outside. What she doesn't see is someone in the church, right behind her. The "killer" is actually a set of twins! As Megan screams...one of the twins captures her death on film, using Daniel's camera.
Warren and Connie can't find their friends. They try to get help at the Logan house. Pa greets them with his shotgun and the couple demands to know what he meant by his comment about the devil being raised. They get no response.
Night falls and the two can only sit helplessly around a campfire. Warren tells Connie to stay put and wait for Daniel and Megan, while he gets the keys to the car from Jonathan's pocket. He's shocked when he finds his friend's corpse slumped up against a tree.
Roy stops by the Logan place and asks the family if they've seen a group of five young kids in the area. Pa says they haven't but Merry Cat contradicts him before being pulled back into the house by her mother. Despite the ranger's assertion that there may have been a murder in the area, the elder Logan doesn't provide any information.
As Roy pulls away, we hear the Logan family arguing from inside the cabin. It's apparent that the killers are Pa and Ma Logan's sons. Merry Cat runs out and catches up to Roy. She tells him she can take him to where the group is camped out. They run into Warren, who tells them that someone moved Jonathan's body.
Connie hears the familiar sound of the whistle. When she looks up, she's horrified to see one of the Logan boys blowing it. She takes off...screaming for Warren...but he's nowhere to be found. With no place left to go, Connie climbs up a tree. The Logan brother is persistent and proceeds to chop at it. The tree falls and the grotesque twin comes after her with the machete. As he's about to strike her, Roy shoots the killer.
Warren tries to comfort his girlfriend as Roy implores them both to get off the mountain. The young man refuses to believe that Daniel and Megan are dead despite what Roy has told them.
Later, while packing up their stuff to leave, Warren notices that Connie has made up her face. The two are suddenly aware they're not alone. Warren has had it and is terrified. Now it appears that Connie has found the inner strength to face danger. The surviving twin jumps out at them and slashes Warren in the stomach.
Connie pounces on him but the Logan boy gets the upper hand. He picks her up and tries to crush her. Finally, Connie musters up all the energy she can and...sticks her fist down the killer's throat!
Literally. The force of half her arm being inside of his mouth is enough to choke him to death. Warren, who is wounded and has just witnessed this scene, is shocked.
The sun has risen and the eerie silence is interrupted by Merry Cat, who sees her brother's body and then disappears again. Warren and Connie are left to pick up the pieces of their lives after this unspeakable experience.
Director Jeff Lieberman had scored with Squirm and Blue Sunshine. As with the former, Lieberman does a truly outstanding job depicting the raw backwoods country.
His direction, along with an interesting script by Mark Arywitz and Gregg Irving, helped make Just Before Dawn rise above the pack. It's a diamond in the rough and one of the most underrated horror flicks around...certainly from this period.
The cast is first-rate and freshfaced with Deborah Benson and Jamie Rose particularly impressive; the suspense at times is palpable. The inbred twins are frightening and the movie as a whole is a welcome twist on the Texas Chainsaw and Deliverance themes.
Most importantly, it is entirely believable from start to finish. Only a confident filmmaker can make us feel claustrophobic in the lush green expanse of woodsy Oregon. Ultimately, a scary and wonderful classic-to-be.