‘So, after lunch one day, everyone just left?’
This TV movie hints at the sort of horror that, for various reasons, can’t be done on American television – the mock-doc, open-ended, vaguely disturbing jitteriness of The Blair Witch Project and the all-out gruesome mutant gore of The Hills Have Eyes – but is still the sort of standards-and-practices-approved project which can topline Harry Hamlin and Susan Dey and avoid so much as an onscreen scratch, let alone killing anyone.
Dad (Hamlin) and Mom (Dey) are on the road in the Western desert with three kids – sons from earlier marriages, and a daughter they have together – when they take a detour to visit Weaver, a ghost town which turns out not to be a cowboy era tourist attraction but somewhere evacuated quickly and mysteriously Marie Celeste-style in 1948. Ominous portents abound: a plane that seems to have fallen out of the sky, a creepily-smiling gas station attendant, a compass which doesn’t work. An abandoned cam-corder gives a Blair Witch-style precis of what happened to an earlier bunch of tourists, who went missing one by one until only a terrified girl (Victoria Dixon-Little) was left gabbling at the camera as something horrible came for her. The car won’t start and they have to camp overnight, when something with a subjective camera POV prowls among them and takes trophies. The next morning, the car is gone. Jim Henley and his stepson Ethan (Jamie Croft) volunteer to hike across the desert for help, while wife Patty stays behind with her stepson Matt (Jeremy Lelliott) and little Kate (Basia A’Hern), who has always known there was something wrong about this place. In the desert, the menfolk find an area of blasted glass shimmering like a mirage, and a monument noting that this was where a neutron bomb was tested in ’48 – but it’s not specified whether the citizens of Weaver were properly evacuated, caught by surprise (vaporised in an explosion which left buildings standing) or hid in the abandoned mines under the town to become hideous mutants.
Patty falls into one of the mines and finds a pile of stolen torches and stuff, just avoiding an encounter with the POV thing. Ethan disappears after stepping over a ridge in the desert just seconds ahead of Jim. After finding that walking in a straight line had brought him back to Weaver, Jim stumbles across his car in a Texas Chain Saw Massacre-style junkyard full of vehicles arranged in a totemic symbol and drives what’s left of his family out of town – crashing through a wooden building when unseen drivers block the street with a truck and a bus – only to find that the eerily calm locals are all in on it somehow. The final girl from the tape turns up working as a glum waitress in a diner, a drunk (Roger Newcombe) in jail gabbles contradictory explanations involving Area 51 and all manner of X-File conspiracies, and Ethan turns up dazed with a weak story about falling into a ravine. The Sheriff (Jeremy Kewley) drags the drunk out to the auto graveyard for some sort of sacrifice to unseen entities, and the Henley family try to drive out of the area at dead of night only to crash in the desert.
Six months later, the family – or something else wearing their bodies – are all at work in the town: it’s unclear whether the real horror is possession, or the fact the middle-class Henley family have to drudge depressingly as diner waitresses or gas station attendants. Written and directed by Walter Klenhard (The Haunting of Seacliff Inn, Lies of the Twins), this 2002 effort is something of a throwback to the creepy, ambiguous TV movies of the 1970s – which often ended with someone possessed or sacrificed or forced to go along with the evil town – and has the sort of finish which guarantees a ton of pissed-off IMDb posts demanding a definitive explanation of what actually happened. I suspect it’s inconclusive (and keeps monsters offscreen) in an attempt to ride the Blair Witch train of the early ‘00s, but offers all those pick-an-explanation options because it feels obliged to give some sort of an ending. It’s not deep, but it does allow space for the viewer to stay scared out rather than giving screentime to a silly rubber-suit mutant or a premise-explaining Sheriff. Though it’s easy to take the familiar likes of Hamlin and Dey as a joke, they are solidly professional and underplay well elements like the wife’s unexpected capability (an editor of technical books, she has facts on car maintenance at her fingertips) and the couple’s diplomatic dealings with their variously-parented three kids to avoid seeming favouritism. It has a couple of moments – the glass in the desert, the reappearance of the girl from the video – which have some sort of resonance. Nothing special, but I kind of liked it.