#8 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.
It took Wes Craven five years from his controversial The Last House on the Left to get his second film released, and it’s obvious to me that, while he might not have become the fully mature horror filmmaker he could eventually grow into, he was becoming more assured in his ability to tell his stories and imbue them with ideas. He still doesn’t have the actual narrative and dramatic elements down quite enough, but it is a step in the right direction. I think it also helps that he takes a step away from the more purely exploitational roots of his previous film and into the horror genre proper.
A family is heading through a remote section of desert from Ohio to California, trying to make a stop at a silver mine given to the grandparents as a silver anniversary present, despite the fact that the mine has run dry. Stopping at the only gas station for miles, owned by Fred (John Steadman), they get information about the area, that it’s filled with only animals, and that they should get out as fast as they can. They, of course, do not follow his advice and end up broken down on the side of the road with their station wagon breaking an axle and their camper running on battery power hitched behind it. Out of this family, few make any kind of impression on their own, the only ones who do being either familiar faces (Dee Wallace) or simply being the last to survive. They are mostly cannon fodder for the horror that is to come down upon them.
However, I do want to note that while the casting on this side of the horror equation is overburdened and should have been culled back at the script stage, I think it’s obvious that the ideas at plat are extensions of those from Craven’s previous film. This is supposed to be an all-American family, and into this family, their home being their car and their camper, comes an outside invasion. It’s a cop, his wife, his son and two daughters and one daughter’s husband along with a baby suddenly getting hit with cannibal freaks in the middle of nowhere. Removed from civilization, they are unprepared for the savagery of the real world. In a way, this is a reverse of Carpenter’s Halloween where evil invaded the prim security of suburbia. Here, suburbia leaves its enclosure and encounters terror. It’s a play on a pretty basic horror idea, the attacking and destruction of something that should be safe.
The tribe of cannibals is led by Jupiter (James Whitworth), Fred’s deformed son that he hit in the face with an axe and left to die. He somehow survived, found a woman to procreate with, and had four children: Mercury (Peter Locke), Mars (Lance Gordon), Pluto (Michael Berryman), and Ruby (Janus Blythe). The three boys are as monstrous as Jupiter, but Ruby endeavors to leave, starting the film by begging Fred to take her with him when he decides to head out of the area, stopped by Mercury bombing his truck.
When the family’s car breaks down, two get sent in different directions to figure out a way out. Big Bob (Russ Grieve) heads back to the station where he finds Fred murdered by Jupiter before he’s captured in the middle of the night, crucified, and burned. Doug (Martin Speer) heads the other direction to see what he can find, coming back with long spools of wire he found at an abandoned military post for some reason. Meanwhile, the group starts getting picked off one by one, starting with Big Bob but culminating in Pluto sneaking his way into the camper, trying to rape the other daughter after stealing all of their food.
In the end, it leaves just two alive and the baby kidnapped, providing us with the impetus for the final section of the film. It’s a final showdown between the two sides, and it goes nastily just about the way you would expect. There’s no breaking of any kind of new ground here. It’s well-worn horror tropes about a family going into the wilderness and being attacked, so even if the idea is there, which it is, the movie never really has anything to say or do with it that’s all that interesting. Then, the finale is almost pure action-horror mechanics, and they’re done well enough. It’s less awkward than the setting up traps in the house in the previous film, leaving the details of the traps to the side and just letting us get the execution which is entertaining enough.
The bleak and quick way the film ends also feels like its supposed to leave us in a similar place as The Last House on the Left, with the man of civilization succumbing completely to natural and animalistic violence in the face of barbarity, and I do think the freezeframe works better in that way. It doesn’t leave much to talk about afterwards, though, leaving the aftermath completely to the imagination. It’s almost like Craven isn’t sure of what the meaning is of what he’s saying. It’s a young artist’s thing, I think.
Anyway, I would never go so far as to call this good, but it’s an advancement on Craven’s ability. The characters, while too many, are a bit better fleshed out in thanks to the longer runtime and less attention paid to exploitative elements. In terms of basic horror thrills, it delivers well enough while its going. It’s not bad, but it’s nothing particularly special either.