Just Before Dawn
Director: Jeff Leiberman

Director: Sean MacGregor

Director: William Fruet

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

The hoary theme of "teenagers in the woods picked off one by one" is pretty hard to do much with, & director Jeff Leiberman doesn't do much with it. The dangerous hillbillies live in the Oregon forest instead of a swamp in the Carolinas or hills of West Virginia, & that's about as "original" as any of it gets.

Nevertheless, for whoever does enjoy this commonplace plotline, it is better acted with better-drawn chracters than one expects of "picked off" teenage horror flicks. Except for George Kennedy they're mostly actors never seen before nor after, but they are surprisingly competent. Credible performances result in something creepier & more tragic than the majority of films from this sub-genre.

It is not merely campy, though it's underlying assumptions about rural families might be better suited to kitsch. It works despite itself probably because of the influence of John Boorman's Deliverance (1972) which isn't that bad a model for effectiveness if you're dead-set on insisting rural people are nothin' but inbred psychos.

Devil Times FiveAlthough Devil Times Five (aka People Toys aka The Horrible House on the Hill aka Tantrums, 1974) begins with the sound & the look of 1970s telefilms, & moves at a sluggard's pace for the first hour as milquetoast suspense, the last third of the film becomes so sleezy & appalling that it becomes no longer possibly made-for-tv. And by sleezy & appalling I mean to say the last half hour is surprisingly entertaining.

The titular "Five" are a group of young children first seen in a schoolbus-yellow van on its way back to the special children's ward of the state mental asylum. When the van slides off a mountain road, only the kids survive the crash, & set off cross-country in a ski resort area on a murderous rampage.

Devil Times FiveThe first inkling that the film isn't going to remain milquetoast much longer is when a beautiful young woman attempts to seduce a retarded adult who likes to play with bunnies. When soonafter the little children turn out to be pack of wolves, it's clear we're on territory so fabulously tasteless that even exploitation fans are going to have to be more openminded than usual to the idea that gore-gags are fun.

Absolutely no adult in the film is safe, yet the kids continue throughout to retain a veneer of innocence despite what they are doing, except perhaps a very young Leif Garret as David, the transvestie psycho child who plays it totally narcissistic. The rest of 'em could be boyscouts & girlscouts they're so cute.

It's by no means a good film but when it finally gets round to showing the kids in action, it ceases to be tentative about its subject matter. That the oldest of the kids poses as a nun lends a nunsploitation ingredient to the mix, but really nothing can equal the slow-motion sight of sweet-looking children commiting axe murders.

The combination of fresh-faced innocent-looking kids accumulating corpses to use as dress-up dollies is quite grimly horrific. In the slasher genre it is rare to see anything that hasn't been seen scores of times already, as the tastelessness of the genre only occasionally incorporates children in quite this on-screen graphic way. It makes for an unseemly feature that crosses one line too many, but I rather liked its unmitigated nerve.

With the success of The Exorcist the year before, with its possessed child doing such shocking things as cussing up a storm while bashing her vagina bloody with a cross of Jesus, it must've seemed momentarily as though child actors were permitted to do just about anything in a movie. But one wonders if director Sean MacGregor didn't do a better job than the producers expected & suffered some backlash. After this earlly showing, I would've expected him to be in the ranks of Tobe Hooper even if not moving on to well budgetted features, but in two & a half decades since he's done precious little.

Funeral HomeA young woman (Lesleh Donaldson) comes to stay in a huge house with her granny (Kay Hawtrey) as granny attempts to save her home by turning the place into a bed & breakfast. The place had formerly been a funeral home but has fallen into some disrepair, so sweet li'l ol' granny needs to get borders or tourists, despite that she apparently keeps psycho grampa in the basement who's bound to get out now & then to kill everybody.

Funeral HomeApart from a folktale air that sets Funeral Home (aka Cries in the Night, 1974) apart from other mindless slashers, this could easily be dismissed as a tedious & silly slasher, up to the point when the actual psycho is revealed & it becomes good unclean fun.

SPOILER ALERT. Anyone who has seen many films like this will have guessed early on that there is no psycho grampa in the basement, but sweet grandma is like Norman Bates keeping a beloved & dried out corpse, while becoming the insanely departed from time to time.
When gentle but secretive Grandma Chalmers turns into the mad granny growling & axe-wacking her way through the canned preserves to get at her granddaughter, character actor Kay Hawtrey puts so much energy into being insane that she's spectacular to observe. Then she returns to her normal self & wants to make some tea for the cops. END SPOILER ALERT

The Canadian film is no great shakes & if you never get to see it, it's not like you'll have missed out on something fine. But if it falls in your lap, & you have at least a mild liking for cheap slashers, this one's protracted climax will prove well worth watching.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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