Saturday, March 7, 2009

Bloody Nightmares #9: High Desert (1994)


A well made but particularly badly acted biker film, Charles T Lang's High Desert certainly looks cheap, but there are some solid production values supporting what is generally a rather dull story. There's too much padding, especially considering the 73 minute running time, but at times it's an interesting break from the run of bad horror films.

Pam (Alice Davidson), a waitress, manages to humiliate Frank (Edward B. Glinkski) in a game of pool, leaving the unhinged biker gang leader aching for revenge. Discovering that Pam is going camping with her husband Dan and friend Linda (Tyleen Roberts), Frank decides to follow them into the woods and have some fun. Once the two groups confront each other things escalate quickly, with Frank killing Dan and then shooting Joe (Ron Jason), a member of the gang, when he tries to calm him down. Linda escapes during the melee and Frank rapes Pam before he, with the remaining gang members, drags her back to his cabin. Linda returns to nurse Joe back to health in order for the two of them to have their (bloody) revenge. Eventually Frank & Joe, both Vietnam vets, have to square off.


Biker films are a strange sub-genre of exploitation, as the rebellious lawbreaking is usually supposed to be appealling to the audience, but the gangs are also shown as genuine threats and full of unpleasant, violent people. The gang in High Desert is particularly displeasing, with Joe being only partly respectable compared to the idiot Tee, the bland (and hard to understand) Rio, and Frank, who seems out of control from the start. Our discovery that Frank saved Joe's life in Vietnam at least explains Joe's loyalty to the group, but we never get a sense from the other two of what is enjoyable about the gang life. Except Frank's awesome Cabin, which does seem pretty nice.

The credits seem to imply that most of the main cast were genuine motorcycle enthusiasts, which seems to explain why they ride a lot more convincingly than they act. Only Ron Jason as Joe gives anything resembling a decent performance, while Edward B. Glinkski is just comically awful as Frank. He looks the part, but comes off as almost entirely unpleasant and is never a convincing leader. The bad acting is particularly crippling as there is a lot of talking in the film, and comparitively little action. In fact, for a biker film, there's surprisingly few scenes of the gang actually riding their motorcycles.


Director Charles T. Lang obviously got a lot of cooperation in the film's production, and we get more ambitious filmmaking than we've seen in most of the efforts in this collection so far. There are dolly and crane shots, and the pre-credits sequence features some nice driving footage on a deserted stretch of highway. Lang shoots very cinematically, using a lot of different angles and set-ups, but this tends to look a bit silly when he's presenting something rather pedestrian. The pool game montage at the beginning is particularly over the top, and while it's sometimes impressive it's also unnecessarily showy.

While at heart a biker film, High Desert spends most of its second half in revenge mode, as Joe and Linda track down the rest of the gang to get their retribution. While we're treated to some extended scenes of the pair walking through the woods, these scenes do build some nice comraderie between Linda and the surprisingly likeable Joe, though the whole climax happens a bit too quickly and isn't able to build up the necessary tension for when Joe and Frank finally confront each other. It also doesn't help that this confrontation ends in a rather ludicrous fashion, with two of the remaining cast shot accidentally.


The soundtrack is unremarkable, though features some actual songs by musician Will Rose. Dialogue is thankfully clear, with only a few scenes where better micing would have helped. The violence, which is minimal, is cheap but effectively done. Except for a few gunshots (and the prescence of a tarantula), there are very few special effects. There are two scenes of topless nudity, but the rape scene is mostly implied rather than shown.

Video is ocasionally grainy, and there is one awful day-for-night scene, but the film (90% of which takes place in the woods) is generally well lit. I noticed a few video glitches throughout, which is likely a problem with the transfer, but doesn't distract much. This is a shot on video effort, though, so don't expect stellar video quality.


A biker revenge flick that could use a little more biking and a lot more revenge, High Desert occasionally rises above its low-budget ambitions but is sunk by bad acting and a pedestrian storyline. The direction shows promise, but the padding makes watching to the end a chore. Not awful, but doesn't distinguish itself enough to be worthwhile.


Shandee Lang said...

I remember when my Dad directed this film, in fact I remember the late nights he was writing it in his study for months on end. Starting out as a stunt man in California directly after HS in the mid to late 70's, his passion was truly behind the scenes. Pursuing after his heart, he became a cameraman for popular news stations in Las Vegas, Nevada (IE: Channel 3, 13, 5 and ending w/ Channel 8 news)where he began his dabbling in writing, directing and producing. To touch on your notice of the biker gang having real riders is correct; 99% belonged to Hell's Angles amongst rider enthusiast. The woods I believe were filmed in Mount Charleston but truthfully it's hard for me to recall for I was very young and spent most of my days on multiple locations for several films at once. As for my Dad, he's continued his passion for the arts of directed/writing but has successfully made a living filming for others including CSI Las Vegas, Travel Channel, HBO, E! Entertainment, Oscars, Music Awards and starting his own business that offers not only his professional camera skills but as well as renting out his massive top of the line collection at half day and full day rates. He's made quite a name for himself from such a "Bloody Nightmares" movie. I'm proud of my Dad to say the least and I've had amazing experiences that most children do not have b/c of his dreams.

Doug Tilley said...

Thanks for the memories, Shandee. I hope my review wasn't too critical of your father's dreams, as he's obviously been a good father to you and - frankly - I think his film could have been something special with a few more experienced actors in the mix. Again, thanks for giving a bit of background, and leaving your comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to a random Google search for me turning up here! I grew up alongside Shandee as close family friends of the Langs. I also helped on the production of this movie when I was a kid. I thought I'd chime in with some other fun facts.

The woods scenes were indeed filmed at Mount Charleston. For the rape scene (I believe?), Chuck (the director) originally wanted Shandee and I to climb inside the tent and shake it/thrash it about. That's how you keep filming light! I also remember being at the screening of High Desert and the actress that went topless was kind of embarrassed because we were there as kids. So I ended up watching those parts through my mom's hand.

I don't remember much of the actual movie. I preferred Chuck's other early film Soul of the Demon.