The border town of Bedford Flats, founded by buffalo hunters, maintains its community values with an annual hunting festival in which local Count Zaroff wannabes pursue select individuals – no-account strangers and (in an interesting variant) locals whose bad habits have tried their neighbours’ patience – into the desert and murder them. Into town on the eve of the holiday is Warren Novak (Martin Dingle Wall), an alcoholic failed meth-cooker who might suddenly have a motive for redeeming himself (a just-discovered daughter in Mexico) but obviously lacks the gumption to survive cold turkey. After a blundered deal leaves a couple of goons dead, Warren absconds with someone else’s stash, and they’re close on his tracks. He is also visited in his withdrawal visions by the garrulous cowboy crook he shot (Jeremy Lawson).
The scenario meshes The Most Dangerous Game with Two Thousand Maniacs!, and eases into its excesses with an unsettling, oddly credible set-up, as affable Steve (Ken Lally) and his wife Cheryl (Sherry Leigh) entrap useless drifters by running AA/NA meetings. Also creepy are the homemade dummy-head scarecrows representing the victims, and a frisson comes when the foggy-brained Warren realises the figure outside his motel room is dressed in clothes like his. The film kicks up a notch when Warren wakes up on the starting line with the affable Sheriff (Gary Sturm) explaining the minimal rules to the prey – who include Warren’s nemesis (Frederick Lawrence) and a whining town drunk (Chuck Ramage) – while the whole town watches. The hunters are Steve and Cheryl, who favour a spiked baseball bat and automotive pursuit … the kill-happy Wakowski siblings (Michael Tipps, Liesel Hanson, Kenneth Billings) … and takes-his-time long-range sniper Don Lincoln (C.J. Baker). After the manner of most hunting horror stories, including Hard Target and The Naked Prey, the supposedly easy kill victims put up more of a fight than expected, though Warren’s sudden streak of self-preservation gets into unexpected areas as he has to fight on while hallucinating … and Steve, revealed to be a former prey himself, goes off-the-map crazy and targets his fellow townsfolk as often as the designated victims.
This shares a lot of imagery with another MotelX selection – Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch – but manages to be more interesting about the state of America in a seemingly no-frills exploitation context than Amirpour’s artier dystopia. As Warren fights through the desert towards Mexico, he runs into a column of illegals coming the other way – who are undeterred by his warnings about ‘bad men up ahead’ – and there’s a terrific reveal of an image which is bound to recur as the movies get their collective head around Trump’s MAGA US, here delivered for a brutal laugh and a genuine last-act shock. The folksy, self-righteous citizens of Bedford Flats – happy to kill off their own drunken grown-up kids along with criminal strangers – are the sorts of villains we’re likely to see more of, all the more infuriating because they profess to believe they’re doing nothing wrong and if they are it’s no worse than the undesirables (another ‘bad batch’) deserve. Even the town drunk targeted for ritual execution justifies the sport with ‘it’s not an everyday thing, just once a year’. The tension between the Sheriff, who doesn’t hunt himself but presides over the dangerous game, and his itching-to-kill nephew Junior (Kenny Wormald) is also pertinent – a smug, cowardly hypocrite looking down on a mean-spirited sadist who is at least honest about wanting to murder folks for fun rather than telling the dead that it’s all for the good of the community.
Written and directed by Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson, with sterling work from Wall in a grueling lead role, this has a bleached widescreen look, with very red blood, and some of the grit of 1950s survival westerns like The Last Wagon or The Naked Spur. Like several other recent genre films, it’s invested wisely in a score heavily featuring excellent new songs (mostly by Ben Bostick). The way Hostel came out of the Bush II era, this is the first major horror film of the Trump presidency.