It’s time for some more 80s horror, and this one is the directorial debut of Peter Rader! You know, the guy who then went on to be one of the people who wrote Waterworld. It stars no one I’ve ever heard of, is a title I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere, and seems to be one of those strange “aimed at teenagers, but just that bit too violent for them to see it” movies like The Gate. Still, it’s not a strong cover and is juxtaposing something nice with the promise of being terrifying so let’s crack this open!
The film starts kind of strong, or at least with the funeral of David (Eric Foster) and Lynn’s (Kim Valentine) father. So, we know our POV characters are defenseless and vulnerable due to age. We then get them traveling from where they were to where they will be (looks like somewhere dusty in California) so we know they’re also displaced. On the way, the bus they’re in almost runs over a random hippy who decided to stand in the road (Brinke Stevens), and that’s the highest tension sequence we get for a long time.
The rest of Act 1 is being introduced to Grandfather (Len Lesser) and Grandmother (Ida Lee), who live in a large house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dust and orange trees. They’re nice people, and they do their best to welcome in the emotionally traumatised kids, but they’re old, live in the middle of nowhere, and those kids have some serious crying to do. David (who is the main protagonist over his sister by a nose) also has a nightmare about them murdering someone in the basement, so we’ve got a bit of unreliable narrator going on to spice things up.
The other key character at this point is Kenny (Michael Robinson), and he’s date-rape with a nice car. Our first introduction is him leering at Lynn whilst she’s in the pool, and Peter Rader decided to show exactly which bits he’s staring at and how. Hey, Peter: please don’t do that! She’s clearly under 18, he’s clearly over 18, and you could have got all that across without making me feel like I’m accessory to a crime, even if it’s only for way too many minutes than it needed, and her swimsuit isn’t especially revealing. Anyway, the hippie turns up again and David sees her. Or does she?… Ghost Hippy!…
There is also a dead body in a pond, that doesn’t add up to anything, the tale of a woman murdered and then raped (the tale is told as happening in that sequence) in a storm drain, youthful fun with high explosives, and a random adolescent friend of the family uttering the line “if I had a sister like that, I’d boff her”. We also find out that David has a night scope that he takes around with him everywhere like a security blanket. It’s about two feet long, probably worth a couple of grand, and of course, that’s a thing.
None of this is especially bad, as thankfully it’s all quite well shot and competently acted, but it’s not really going anywhere, and nothing really happens. There is a bit of “are the Grandparents creepy”, but nothing that can’t be explained by David being a bit dumb and a bit emotionally overwhelmed by everything. Not least, because his previously inseparable sister is doing what apparently all girls do at that age; becoming interesting in the first creep to treat her like a piece of meat. There is no reason for us to really care, or be that engaged with anything, and that’s because this film is playing the long game and act 2 is a total con job.
Around the 50 minutes mark, the crazy kicks in. Yes, it centers around the Ghost Hippy. No, I’m not going to go into much detail here, because it’s a wild ride and has an ending that, frankly, you would not see coming a mile off. There are twists, there are turns, and there are moments of you just going “What The Fuck!”, not out of incredulity but at the raw audacity of the film hitting up some pretty intense plot points with no warning beforehand.
All of this is shot with incredible skill, owing a clear debt to works such as Friday the 13th part’s 5 and 6. As said, the violence is subdued, and the gore is minimal. But the direction sure as hell lets you know the stakes and it’s absolutely clear what’s happening to people, even if it’s going on off-screen. Arguably, it’s nothing especially new and the main reason it feels fresh is the ages of the victims. Still, it works and that’s what counts: when the credits roll, you’ll be shocked, and worried, and invigorated.
So, on those grounds, it’s a Treasure. Yes, a good chunk of it is a bad film done well. But that’s either intentional pacing or blind luck that paid out in the end. It’s just good enough to keep you watching, and then you’ll forgive it’s failing once the blood starts pumping. People who want more consistently constructed or more violent will be disappointed. But as far as low budget, low gore “orphans in peril” mixed with “killer-hippy” and “sinister old people” stories of the 80’s goes; it does a tidy job of it.