A haunted house movie on wheels, this has an appropriately faded, fly-specked, grungy look and some decent performances – but keeps tripping up over contrivances, and has to prolong the agony by having characters semi-hold shit together during a parade of tragic incidents that start at eleven and then ramp up the trauma so much each fresh nastiness becomes unwittingly comic. Too mean-spirited to be campy fun after the fashion of The Car or The Hearse, it suffers from that ‘extreme horror’ edge we all saw through as cynical posing ten years ago – but its murderous camper van/recreational vehicle is an impressive monster, with the kind of rusty retro vibe of the truck from Duel or the ambulance from The Ambulance.
Just-widowed Charles (Greg Voland) buys a second-hand RV at the sort of suspiciously low price home-buyers around Amityville have long since learned to distrust, and corrals his bickering sons – straight-arrow Steve (Jeff Denton) and slacker Jay (Brian Nagel) – to come on a dream trip into the desert in honour of their late Mom, accompanied by Steve’s slightly uptight wife Jennifer (Denise Richards) and authentically demanding/irritating cute daughter Olivia (Malika Michelle). Before the party even sets off, we know there’s something wrong with the vehicle – as a local lad breaks into it, finds the interior bleeds when scratched, and is done away with by a supernatural force. In the middle of nowhere, the clan pick up Samantha (Mischa Barton) and Mark (Matt Mercer), who have broken down and will soon have cause to regret being given a lift. The family have so much undealt-with bitterness and resentments over things like missed graduation ceremonies and funerals that the film doesn’t even need to have a red herring feint about the strangers added to the mix being sinister.
The RV drives itself off into the wilderness, beyond walking distance of the road or rescue, and temperamentally stalls, except when it needs to start up again to run people over or otherwise cause dire injury, and a ruthless body count starts racking up. Jennifer begins to see ticked-off ghosts in the van or on its TV, and it slowly dawns on everyone that this is the infamous ‘toybox’ owned by goofy-toothed serial killer Robert Gunthry (David Greathouse, who also does the make-up effects), who prowled for victims in the thing and used it as a killing room, leaving handy weapons and polaroid evidence that somehow didn’t get found by the cops to be discovered by the new owners. The vehicle was supposed to be broken up to save the feelings of Gunthry’s victims, but someone saw a quick buck in selling it to a doomed idiot – though, in real life, they could have made a ton more money selling it to the sort of sicko who collects John Wayne Gacy paintings.
Written by co-star Denton – from a story devised with Jeff Miller, Brian Nagel and director Tom Nagel (Clown Town) – this gives the cast some meat to chew, though the most convincing, nerve-shredding stuff involves the kid’s incessant nagging, and Richards’ strained patience as the mother is horribly believable even if her later spiralling into psychic visions lunacy goes far over the top.