Slightly whiny Dad Neil (Weaver) is ticked off with his hothead son Steve (Kristoffer Tabori) for dropping out of college while very whiny Arlene (Estelle Parsons) is suffering from empty nest syndrome and DeeDee (Susan Dey) shows off her taut tummy in a brief bikini (is she named after the Annette Funicello character in the Beach Party films?) as she tries to keep the peace. En route to the beach, the camper van is driven off the road by a firetruck loaded with hippies, and Neil has a face-off with the Mansoneseque, bare-chested Jerry (Scott Hylands) which makes his son needle him for not being tougher (‘How do you manage, Dad? By letting lowlifes walk all over you?’). As in most of these films, the normal guy lets the first few hassles slide (‘If we can’t trust people, it’s back to the jungle’; ‘They’re just trying to scare us – if we ignore them they’ll get bored and leave’) only for the tsuris to escalate. Wendkos stages creepy tauntings: a cry for help that draws the menfolk down the beach to find a face-painted dummy dressed in DeeDee’s stolen clothes lying in the water; the unseen gang joining in a chorus of ‘I Went to the Animal Fair’ when the family sing around the campfire, and later play sound effects wild animal noises and the family’s own recording fearful whining at them through a public address system; and the ever-popular game of herding the straights with beach buggies (this mode of transport was a Manson thing – and there’s some great stuntwork here) across the dunes and into the sea.
It being a TV movie, things go no further than tipping over the camper with the family inside and some aimless pursuit, though that makes it slightly more credible than most daggers-drawn pictures. The resolution is at once inspirational and satisfyingly revenge-driven, as one of the creeps (Henry Olek) is injured but shocked by the normals’ irritated compassion (‘You’re a family … That’s what Jerry said that we were, but he didn’t know what it meant, you know what I mean?’) and leads them to the freak camp for a climactic one-on-one in which the middle class Dad whips the cocky young longhair (it’s unspoken – but Dad must have been in the army and learned unarmed combat, while Jerry avoided Vietnam and gets trounced). The kids aren’t individuated as characters, which makes them scarier – Michael Christian does a jittery stare (we can assume they’re all on drugs but it’s not mentioned) and the mostly silent hippie chicks are Roberta Collins (a Roger Corman regular), Jackie Giroux (of Drive In Massacre and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS), Betsy Slade and Carol Ita White (who was in Helter Skelter). A few more screws could have been tightened if it weren’t for network standards and practices, but at 73 minutes this is as tight and relentless a thriller as you’d want.
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