Two more copycat killer in the woods flicks for 80s slasher fans who can’t get enough. I’ll start with what I think is one of the most illogically praised 80s slashers ever.
JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981)
I’ve tried several times to like Just Before Dawn considering it’s essentially a hybrid of The Hills Have Eyes and Friday the 13th and has a damn awesome cast of horror faces. It also has moments that could have been incredibly effective. Yeah. COULD have been.
As I watched for the first time ever the uncut version on the Blu-ray, it didn’t take me long to realize why very little of the scariest scenes in this film work. There is NO musical score and no musical cues to enhance the creepiest scenes—not even a Jason-esque sound effect. There are occasions in horror movies when silence works, but to have it throughout a film simply makes it a total dud.
Even John Carpenter has said that when he first screened Halloween for the movie studio without a score in place, they hated it. He went back, added his score, showed them the film again, and they loved it. It would be great to see Just Before Dawn recut with some sort of musical score because some of the killer spottings are brilliant.
Having said all that, I’m going to just spoil the hell out of this one step by step. I think this dry presentation significantly demonstrates the dragging effect the lack of music, overly long filler scenes, and disappointing kill sequences have on the film.
The movie opens with two drunk dudes working in some empty church in the middle of the woods. One of them sees the silhouette of a man looking down from a hole in the roof. So do we. Big deal. It’s someone looking down at him. He runs outside and sees their truck roll down a hill and crash into a tree. Inside, the other dude is stabbed through the groin with a machete by a guy with an orange down vest. Savor this kill, because it’s the best in the movie.
Cut to a gang of kids driving up a mountain in an RV, listening to “Heart of Glass” by Blondie. Awesome. They make it very clear that they are absolutely NOT going to a summer camp. Okay. We get it. Not a Friday the 13th rip-off (even though it is). They hit a deer. One guy gets out, realizes it was already dead when they hit it, but tells the others it ran off. We get some killer POV.
They come across a park ranger. He warns them not to go up the mountain. They ignore him. They come across the drunk worker from the beginning, who tries to warn them there’s something evil in the mountains. They ignore him. As they drive off, we see someone jump onto the back of their RV.
They find a nice spot in the mountains and set up camp. Some of them play a scare prank at the campfire. Imagine that. The obvious final girl gets upset that she froze up in response to the fake scare. Ah! Slasher character motivation. She has to find her psycho killer confronting guts. Yawn.
They go hiking. They see a mysterious girl run off. They cross a rope bridge. They roll down a hill. They swim. One of the couples messes around in the water. The boyfriend disappears under the surface for a long time, the girlfriend panics, but he’s just messing with her. Imagine that.
Now comes one of those almost awesome scenes that needed some sort of sound cue, mostly because we know the whole group is nearby so we never feel like the girlfriend is in any real danger. We see the orange vested killer walking through a waterfall behind them and into the water. The boyfriend goes under again and the girl starts to get fondled by hands coming up from under the water. She giggles but then looks up and realizes her boyfriend has done some underwater swimming to the shore. She races to him hysterically. He tells her she was imagining the hands all over her. Okay.
To get out her frustrations at being considered paranoid, the girlfriend gets them all to dance by the fire that night. The strange girl from earlier shows up with her redneck family, guns in hand. They warn the group to leave because they’re unleashing a devil in the woods. That’s THREE times they’ve been warned.
Next morning, one of the dudes ends up on the rope bridge, which gets cut by the killer on the other side. The dude lands in the water, which is probably only about 20 feet below. He climbs back up a rope on the side of the cavern. When he gets to the top, the killer seems to have made it to the other side of the bridge. In a mall Santa Claus “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid” moment, the killer gives the dude a boot push to the face. The dude falls in the water again. That’s it. That’s his death scene.
The final girl and her man find him dead. She immediately believes he’s been murdered because we have to see her mentally preparing for a confrontation with a killer since that’s what Jamie Lee Curtis did in Halloween.
Meanwhile, the other guy and girl end up near the church, taking photos. The killer approaches and stabs the guy with the machete. The girl runs inside the church and watches the killer pick up the camera and take pictures of the dying guy. Suddenly, she realizes there’s another dude in an orange vest behind her. Aha! There are two of them! They’re deformed brothers (bad skin and sun glasses make them deformed, apparently). She begs for mercy as one brother approaches her inside while the other brother moves toward the window from outside taking pictures. That’s where her death scene ends.
All that remain are the final girl and her man at the campfire at night, waiting for the others to return. One of their friends is already dead and the other two are missing, so her man decides…to leave her alone by the fire! Now comes an actual effective scene that totally works without any musical score. He is exploring the woods and waving his lantern back and forth. And several times before he notices it, we get to see the body of one of his friends leaning against a tree behind him.
Meanwhile, the park ranger has come to look for the kids. He stumbles upon the house of the redneck family. Only the strange girl wants to help him so she jumps on a horse with him. They eventually come across the final girl’s boyfriend.
Meanwhile, the final girl gets attacked by one of the deformed brothers at her campfire. She runs into the woods for a really short, lame, suspense-free chase scene. She climbs a tree…and he hacks it down with his machete! Just as he raises his machete arm to chop her up, the ranger appears and shoots him. The ranger then babbles something about the killer being the product of inbreeding.
The couple goes back to their campfire to pack up their things. I have no idea why, but the final girl goes in the tent and comes out dressed like a sluttier Maryann from Gilligan’s Island with a bizarre, hypnotized look on her face. Her man starts babbling boring shit, then the other deformed brother pops out. He knocks the boyfriend down, but he’s no match for our final girl, who has found her inner outdoor slut. She rams her entire fist down his throat. The end.
Yeah. Just Before Dawn is a really weak slasher film. Even the most well-thought-out killer approaches pack no punch. You just kind of think, “Oh yeah. There’s the killer behind them. Guess another lame death is coming.”
BODY COUNT (1986)
So when Ruggero Deodato, director of the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, makes a slasher film, gore expectations are going to be pretty high. Prepare for a let down. Body Count is a typical 80s slasher, although it does have a very 80s European horror film feel to it…in that it makes no fricking sense!
We start a couple of decades back, with some kids going to a camp in the woods. There’s a little boy with a Teddy bear. There’s a mysteriously abandoned cop car. There’s a couple having sex. They both die….
Flash forward to the present (1986) and a bunch of kids is heading to the woods in an RV. Sound familiar? This group, however, picks up a hitchhiker. He invites them to stay at his parents’ camp…where his dad is setting traps to catch an evil Indian Shaman spirit.
This one has it all. Tons of nudity—including male frontal mostly hidden by shrinkage and huge 80s bush, chase scenes, machetes, killer POV, nightmare dream sequences, a mysteriously abandoned house in the middle of the woods, dead bodies falling out all over….
The problem is, you start to lose track of the characters. There are so many of them, and even as you think they are getting killed off, some of them aren’t killed off, and after a cut to another scene, we come back and return to their death scenes. Or they don’t die and end up in the hospital. There’s a sheriff lurking around the woods. There’s an abusive relationship. There are cheap scare scenes between the friends. There are flashback scenes. There are so many scenes that are way too dark to see what’s actually going on.
Aside from the constant “WTF is going on” feeling, it’s your typical entertaining derivative backwoods slasher, complete with a stupid, nonsensical final freeze-frame shot.
If you took the best elements of Just Before Dawn and combined them with the best elements of Body Count, you’d have a pretty awesome 80s slasher. Instead, you have two slashers that make you want to go watch the original Friday the 13th to see it done right.