Sunday, July 21, 2019

High Desert Kill (1989)

The friends Jim (Anthony Geary), Brad (Marc Singer) and Paul (Vaughn Armstrong) have been making an annual hunting trip for ages. This year’s outing is a rather sad one, for Paul has died in a horrible accident, and Jim and Brad are taking Paul’s nephew Ray (Micah Grant) with them to scatter Paul’s ashes in the high desert, as per his wishes. It’s pretty clear that Paul was the glue that kept this particular friendship together, for the pretty sensitive medical researcher Jim and the ultra-macho Brad are clearly just one honest talk away from being on the outs forever. The presence of the younger Ray – an actor/model who is the national face of one of those pseudo-rugged outdoorsy companies that are neither rugged nor outdoorsy  - doesn’t help calm things down terribly well, either; his not being his uncle probably has a lot to do with that, as does the generation gap between the man and the one between their personalities.

Once they arrive at the place where they want to make their base camp site, the trio meet grizzled hunter Stan (grizzled Chuck Connors). Stan has bad news for them. Apparently, there’s not a trace of game animals – or really any animal – to find in the area, something the experienced Stan has no explanation for whatsoever. It becomes quickly clear that something is not at all right with the place, even ignoring the lack of animals. It is as if some invisible power were watching the group, playing with their moods and emotions in inexplicable ways, as if something were having its perverse fun, or perhaps were experimenting, with the hunters.

TV veteran Harry Falk’s High Desert Kill is a wonderful example of what could be done within the realm of the made-for-TV movie when the stars were just right, and the right script met the right cast and director in just the right mood. The script by Mike Marvin, Darnell Fry and T.S. Cook is about as Fortean as you could imagine, mixing various elements of High Strangeness with a variation on Fort’s “we are cattle”, and coming up with something that is tense, weird, yet also grounded in a believable depiction of a type of male friendship. This depiction makes it easy to buy into the stranger elements of the film, adding an additional frisson of wrongness to moments like the scenes where Brad comes upon the other three men huddled around a fire cavemen-style, bloodied and gnawing on the raw liver of a bear they had to kill off-screen. In fact, there are a couple of important things happening off-screen, perhaps for budgetary reasons; however it came about, the film only showing us the consequences of certain things also very effectively suggests that there is something wrong with time, space, and memory, the characters seemingly not quite living in a linear, observable reality anymore.

As an old TV hand, Falk’s not the most stylish of directors, but he does make excellent use of the eeriness of the high desert, suggesting the presence of the thing that is haunting the characters through colour filters, sudden absences of sound, and other tricks of that sort. It’s really effective work, particularly in combination with a minimal synth soundtrack by Dana Kaproff that provides additional low budget otherworldliness, and performances that are over the top in just the right way, suggesting the mental pressure and the malignant outside influence on the characters, while also adding a suggestion of complexity to the men.

The ending’s not quite as great as the rest of the movie, explaining things a bit too pat, and resulting in a clever yet not completely convincing finale of dramatic shouting that seems to come right out of an episode of the original Outer Limits (which is not a bad place to come from). The traditional horror movie bullshit ending is very effective, suggesting all kinds of nasty things in the future of the protagonists.

High Desert Kill is a fine movie, using most of the deficits that come with a low budget and a short shooting schedule as ways to add eeriness and weirdness to the whole affair, resulting in one of the best Fortean horror films I know.

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