High Desert Kill
An experiment in terror.
Year of Release: 1989
Genre: Science Fiction/Drama
Running Time: 89 minutes (1:29)
Director: Harry Falk
Anthony Geary ... Dr. Jim Cole
Marc Singer ... Brad Mueller
Micah Grant ... Ray Bettencamp
Chuck Connors ... Stan Brown
Vaughn Armstrong ... Paul Bettencamp / Alien
Deborah Anne Mansy ... Kathleen
Lori Birdsong ... Terry
Three friends embark on a hunting expedition and meet a mountain man who tells them something has scared away all the animals in the region.
As they find themselves reverting to primitive and bizarre behavior, the men soon discover they are being manipulated in sinister experiments for an alien force.
Their only hope for survival is to unite against the extra-terrestrial in this haunting chiller.
High Desert Kill, remindin' us that if women don't wanna get telepathically aphrodisiac'd by intergalactic space perverts they shouldn't be runnin' around the woods in cutoff jeans.
And speakin' of people who look like fell out of a flyin' saucer - I'd like to take a minute to reflect upon the words of the wise and learned Dee Snider when he proclaimed clearly and eloquently that "love is for suckers." Dee sang his little transvestite heart out. He tried to warn us, and what'd we do? Ignored his sagely advice and got trapped inside a bowlin' alley for eight hours, forced to listen to a walkin' "Just for Men" advertisement rail the town strumpet against an air hockey table.
I'd tell ya exactly what that sounded like except that if I did that the macaroni and cheese futures'd tumble so far that the employees at Kraft wouldn't get a Christmas bonus again until the year 2116, and I don't wanna be responsible for five generations of hopeful-eyed children havin' to go without season tickets to the Rollerball league. Call me a sentimentalist, call me a bleedin' heart, call me a guy who blew his grocery money tryna claim the high score on the Galaga machine and needed a quick cash infusion - but once you've heard my story I think you'll agree that cupid's artillery has caused more collateral damage than the Predator drone and Jerry Springer combined.
So like I was sayin', I was just mindin' my own business at the Gutter Bowl, stimulatin' the economy one quarter at a time, when all the sudden I start hearin' this muffled cursing comin' from the crane machine on the far end of the arcade.
"...stupid invertebrate bastard! When I get you outta there I'm gonna rip your arms off one by one and..." it was Otis Turlinger, apparently on the losing end of a battle of wits between himself and a stuffed octopus.
"Hey, you wanna hold it down back there? Protectin' the Earth from imitation Space Invaders is tough enough without your pitiful bitchin'," I asked as courteously as possible.
"This thing is a scam!" he wailed impotently.
"'Course it is - no stuffed animal's worth a quarter unless you've got an irate woman at home who's liable to stuff your gondolas down the garbage disposal for comin' home late, drunk, and with the after-effects of the alley's Five Alarm Flatch-in-the-Pants chili startin' to assert themselves," I agreed.
I woulda continued explainin' the facts of wife to Otis except about that time B.J. Wilder walked in.
"Hey, handsome," she purred.
"Can't talk now B.J., the American way of life as we know it hangs in the balance," I hollered in the midst of a fierce Martian bombardment before bein' suddenly struck in the right elbow by an air hockey puck that diverted my attention just long enough for my last ship to be abducted by a cocky blue space crustacean.
"Well, I hope you're happy!" I whined, rubbin' my funny bone. "Line up for your compulsory anal probe and alien petting zoo assignments!"
"Whatcha doin' in here? Ain't it your lunch hour?" B.J. asked Otis, ignorin' my apocalyptic ramblings.
"Oh, nothing. I think this thing's broken," Otis grumbled.
"Let me see," B.J. instructed before skillfully plucking Otis' 8-armed adversary from the heap and depositing it down the retrieval chute.
"Seems fine to me," she smiled. "Got a game startin' in a few, but I'll come find ya afterwards," she promised as she passed him the molluskian menace.
"I see Chuck's been swipin' his prizes from the Goodwill bin again," I observed as I peered through the plexiglass at the spoils within.
"Looks that way. But that suction cup Garfield's cute - had one when I was a kid," B.J. remarked before headin' off to battle the mighty Bowldozers.
"Hmm. She likes the Garfield," Otis thought out loud.
"I wouldn't bother, Otis. I mean, she said *I* was cute after I'd passed out with my head in the toilet at that party Horace Ellingson had in '92, and I can assure you, based upon what I was drippin' with when I woke up, no part of that situation was 'cute,'" I shuddered.
"Are you any good at this game?" he asked.
"I told ya, I don't need to be. All I got waitin' for me at home is a dog and a possum, and neither one of 'em wears a watch," I repeated.
"I'll give you $20 if you can get the Garfield plush out for me," he promised.
"Well, I *know* a guy..." I started to say.
"NOT Wilcox," he glared.
"Ya know, you guys really blew that whole thing outta proportion," I asserted.
"He cleaned out all the stuffed animals and replaced them with the cigarette machine inventory," he snarled.
"Yeah, Mystie Forsythe 'bout had a nervous breakdown tryna get that pack of Virginia Slims outta there, didn't she?" I chuckled.
"We had to call the fire department to get her head out of the retrieval hatch!" he seethed.
"Look, your cartoon cat's buried beneath multiple layers of sedimentary childhood sentimentality. If you want it, Merle's your only hope. So either gimmie the $50 or leave me to my alienatin'," I said.
"I said $20," Otis reiterated, his arms folded across his chest.
"Uh huh, and if this were a Mary Kay Cosmetics seminar we might be dumb enough to pay for the privilege of workin' for you, but Merle's a CPA and I don't wear makeup, so that ain't gonna get it," I told 'im.
"You're telling me that it's gonna take $30 to fish that thing out?! I thought he was a pro?!" he squealed.
"Prolly take 'im $6... maybe $7 to get it out. The rest's for provisions," I expounded.
"What provisions?!" he fumed.
"You really have no idea how this game works, do ya?" I sighed. "Provisions, man! Mountain Dew, M&Ms - you want the guy prepared or not? A sugar rush is essential for heightening the senses - do I have to explain EVERYTHING?!" I shouted, nearing the point of exasperation.
"Alright! Just get it and bring it by the house. I'd like to give it to her tonight, he instructed as he handed over the cash and headed back to work.
"Whatchu plannin' to do with that squid, by the way?" I yelled after 'im.
"Document shredder," he replied clinically before shuttin' the door to the records office.
It'd be just B.J.'s luck to be datin' a serial killer, but I didn't really have time to consider the long term implications of Otis' plush hostility, and unfortunately, Merle was up on the roof lookin' out for clandestine IRS special investigative swat teams the first three times I called and so he didn't make it down to the alley until 11:45pm. Even Merle wasn't gonna be able to nab that thing inside 15 minutes, so I told Otis we'd have the merchandise secured and delivered by 1 and that we'd just climb out the window in the men's restroom when we were done.
"How you gonna do that? That window has a deadbolt on the outside - has ever since that string of rental shoe thefts in '97," Otis asked.
"That latch's been busted since '99 when you guys got into the chili business. Ya know, for people who market a product as bein' 'hot enough to boil Beelzebub's ballsac' you have shockingly little insight into what it does to a guy's digestive tract, and to what lengths the rest of the people in the can will go to avoid walkin' past the stalls to reach the exit," I told 'im.
In any event, Merle got 'imself juiced up on high fructose corn syrup, got in the zone, and had that nappy ole Garfield relic outta the machine by 12:23am (only took the man 13 quarters to excavate it from the depths of the right rear corner) and we were about to beat cheeks outta there when the front door flew open and in walked a powerfully sloshed Chuck Maxwell with an equally blitzed Trixie Willager, leavin' Merle and me no alternative but to dive behind the Gauntlet and Centipede machines.
"Told ya nobody comes here this late," Chuck slobbered as the two of 'em stumbled through the arcade entryway.
"Well, maybe *I* will if yer good as you said you is," Trixie slurred suggestively.
After four attempts to hoist 'er inebriated hinder up onto the air hockey table she finally made it up there and... look, I don't wanna think about that ever again. Our beloved table has been, literally, tainted. I mean, is NOTHING sacred anymore?
So anyway, there we were, huddled behind our respective cabinets, and although their unholy union only clocked in at around four and a half minutes, anytime we'd make a move to sneak out one of 'em'd stir and we'd hafta bolt back behind the machines. I remember thinkin' that the one good thing to come outta this would be if those two scabs slept all the way to 8am when the place opened up they'd get found out and Chuck's wife'd take everything he had, but damned if they didn't come around at 7:36 and clear out before anyone made it in to catch 'em.
Otis was pretty P.O.'d until I explained what'd happened. That was the last I saw of 'im, presumably 'cause he'd realized he'd be the one havin' to sanitize the air hockey table and hadda make a mad dash for somethin' to puke in, but from what I heard B.J. loved the Garfield plush, so mission accomplished, I guess.
I woulda gone straight to bed the minute I got home, 'cept every time I closed my eyes my brain kept fillin' in the missin' visual with the archived audio and before I knew what was goin' on I'd subconsciously edited together several new Army hygiene films. What I needed was somethin' incoherent enough to keep my mind engaged but dull enough to slowly lull me off to sleep, so I went with this made-for-cable flick from 1989 called High Desert Kill, which is basically like a Lifetime original only instead of a manipulative, domineering, insensitive sleazeball husband, we get a procrastinatin' outer space alien who comes to Earth to write its graduate thesis on the behavior habits of primitive life forms at the last minute, and so it hasta telepathically screw with the dopatonin levels in people's brains to speed up the experiment so everyone'll start actin' like manic-depressives in a heroin den while it records observations. I think it was financed by the Narcoleptics Anonymous Association to boost awareness about accidental dinner plate drownings or somethin', and so in the spirit of that noble goal, I've taken the liberty of pickin' out all the relevant cliffs notes for ya right here and now to help prevent any more senseless chili drowning incidents. First, a six-minute mile ain't gonna be what you're remembered for if you end up roadkill beneath a runaway Chevy Blazer. Second, never secure your pack animal to somethin' they can eat. And third, if you've recently had sex with Marc Singer and are experiencing thoughts of suicide, trained counselors are standing by right now to take your call.
The movie begins with a couple Apache stone masons luggin' a deer home for dinner, only while they were out huntin' the Great Spirit musta found out that the guy from those 1970s anti-litterin' PSAs was an Italian in native drag, 'cause it gets so hacked off that it kicks up a nasty windstorm and forces the two hunters to crash at Fred Flintstone's house till mornin'. Things seem alright at first, but when one of 'em gets up in the middle of the night to unkink his hose the front door lights up like there're Christian missionaries outside shootin' an Amy Grant music video, and when he goes to check it out whatever-it-is gets inside his brainpan and tells 'im to get his rifle and take his buddy on a permanent spirit walk. Next thing, three friends (Jim, Ray, and Marc Singer) are headin' out buck huntin' in this place with rock formations that look like they were carved by Stone Age Soviet architects to get in touch with their primitive selves and cast off the rigors of modern life so they don't go off the deep end and take hostages at Applebees. 'Cept by the time they get there damned if Chuck Connors ain't campin' in their spot, and worse yet - Chuck tells 'em he ain't seen anything big enough to make a meal for Fiona Apple in over a week. Marc tells 'im it's prolly 'cause the animals can smell the scent of Bengay that precedes 'im and that they'll find somethin' to kill even if he hasta use his souped-up Dr. Dolittle powers. Then they dump out a Maxwell House can containin' the ashes of their recently departed friend (Paul), only while they're eulogizin' 'im this invisible entity whose brain downloads images with an Intel Celeron processer starts inspectin' the group and decides to untie Chuck's pack horses just for the hell of it, and Jim's barely able to keep Chuck from goin' full-on Yosemite Sam by promisin' to help 'im look for 'em in the mornin'. So the next day they split into groups of two to go look for the horses, but Ray and Marc end up findin' a coupla chicks (Terry and Kathy) instead and Marc accidentally turns 'em both lesbian when he volunteers to be their air mattress.
That prolly woulda been the end of it, 'cept later that night Terry wakes up to the sound of anguished, undead sperm whale banshee calls echoin' around the walls of 'er thought chamber, and things really get weird when she notices the guys' dead friend a few yards away grinnin' at 'er like a jackal on a zebra carcass. Then Paul astral projects a few hits of ecstasy into the girls' nasal passages until they get so horny that they head over to the guys' camp and start guzzlin' Chuck's tequila and next thing you know everybody starts havin' sex with anything that moves like they're tryin' to finish filmin' a porno flick at the Best Western 10 minutes before check out time. The followin' mornin' the guys wake up used, bruised, and deeply confused, and after a brief search of the area turns up no evidence of Bill Cosby, opt to put the incident to the back of their minds and don microphone headsets till they look like 13-year-olds playin' Call of Duty so they'll be prepared in case they're attacked by a splinter cell of Earth First ecosexuals while in pursuit of the wily and elusive mule deer. 'Course, these big city chunkheads don't seem to realize all the deer're down in the valley munchin' the local farmers' alfalfa crops, and when they do finally find somethin' to shoot at it comes in the form of an ill-tempered Forest Service mascot who's not the least bit impressed by their disregard for proper campfire safety protocols. Meanwhile, Marc's gone off by 'imself to look for the missin' babes in the woods to see if they can help get his tent unzipped, but when he reaches their campsite it's been hastily abandoned. Eventually he rejoins the rest of the guys, only while he was gone they've regressed to a primitive Appalachian state of shirtless savagery, and when he tries guttin' the bear they killed they all go apeshit and run 'im off like a government census taker. By mornin' the three neanderthralls've managed to sleep off their feral bloodlust and rejoined fully-clothed society, and once they're able to track Marc down they apologize for treatin' their outing like a tailgate party at Razorback Stadium and explain that their bear carcass's vanished like a triple bogey from Donald Trump's scorecard.
This's all gettin' a little too creepy for everyone involved, so they decide to truck it back to Albuquerque and let Robert Stack sort out this nonsense, only when they try crankin' their rig it just makes this pathetic noise like a fat woman's neck massager beggin' to die and they hafta shack up in the same stone ruins that got the Indians, which turns out to be a lost and found bin for unresolved plot points. Everyone that's gone missin' turns up dead in the ruins except the brunette nympho, Kathy, who's gone around the bend three or four times and now has a permanent look on 'er face like somebody just invited Tippi Hedrin to visit the local aviary. Ray, Jim, and Chuck decide to stay behind so they'll have safety in numbers in case Kathy gets 'er groove back while Marc goes for help, but when Marc goes joggin' down the road the asshole projection of Paul fires up the guys' truck and makes orphans of Kodo and Podo. Then Kathy's brain toggles back on and she explains how the thing that's runnin' around stirrin' up a new generation of Boy Scout campfire legends is inhabiting the body of their dead friend and that normally she and Terry wouldn'ta touched 'em with Mae West's tits but they were bein' mind-controlled at the time and the whole thing left Terry so embarrassed that she hadda kill 'erself 'cause she couldn't live with people knowin' she'd been Beastmastered. Jim finally comes to the conclusion that, despite all their rage, they're just rats in a cage, and that somewhere outside is an interstellar Billy Corgan with a research grant testin' their reactions to emotional stimuli, which is confirmed when they try leavin' the building and discover they're trapped inside an outer space snowglobe. I know it's kinda lousy to stop the review when we're on the verge of somethin' actually happenin', but I wouldn't be able to live with myself if this flick suddenly became an overnight cult phenomenon and people didn't get to experience an unspoiled endin' like God and the USA network intended.
Alrighty, so, for anyone who mighta been wonderin', this is what a potboiler looks like when nobody bothers to add water. It's not a bad concept, but the story would have been more effective had they tightened it up and made it as part of an episodic TV show in the vein of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. Simply put, this thing takes forever to get goin', and after 75 minutes of battling with one's increasingly saggy eyelids, your reward is a conclusion that's largely spoiled by the synopsis on the rear cover. I dunno what happened to made-for-TV flicks at the dawn of the '80s, but that niche film medium is one of the rare areas where the '70s are unequivocally superior. One could reasonably argue that signing on to produce a made-for-TV movie is akin to playing a video game in hard mode, because you know going in that your story and acting will have to shoulder most of the burden because you can't fall back on T&A or gruesome special effects to keep the audience interested, and you've also gotta finish with a running time short enough to accomodate a very specific volume of commercials. I find it telling that the director, Harry Falk, despite having an impressive resume, never directed anything that was not made-for-TV, be it episodes of various series or a handful of movie-of-the-week features. That's not to say that he wasn't a good director of episodic TV because you don't get as many gigs as he did by being a talentless fraud, but the guy just seems uncomfortable with this genre, and given the content of his resume, it looks as though he got the job on the basis that he happened to be free at the time. High Desert Kill was also his penultimate directing assignment, as he retired the following year after his final gig filming an episode of Christine Cromwell. Maybe his heart wasn't in it anymore, or maybe nobody's was, given that the only cast member who really seems to be taking the flick seriously is the ever-reliable Chuck Connors, but whatever the case may be, I'm sad to report that High Desert Kill commits the most unforgivable of cinematic sins, which states that, as the inimitable Joe Bob Briggs put it: "a movie can be absolutely anything, except boring."
I just wanna say before we get into this next part that I take no pleasure in the dismantling of any '80s flick, so for the folks who worked on this one, I just wantcha to know - this's gonna hurt me more than it hurts you. The plot suffers from a lack of twists or even increasing stakes as the flick meanders from one strange occurrence to the next without any real revelation as to what's going on or increased feeling of threat to the characters involved. New events don't really build upon those that came before, and there doesn't seem to be any sense of direction or coherent thought process playing out as the film progresses. Perhaps the most egregious issue, however, is that the antagonist (finally revealed in the last seven minutes or thereabouts) doesn't follow its own rules, as it is revealed that the entity takes on the form being envisioned by the person(s) currently looking at it. 'Course we know that's BS because it takes the form of the guys' deceased companion early on, and when the female characters see it, it appears to them in this same form without them ever knowing what that guy looked like. On the plus side, by the time the credits role you're so disinterested that you can't really be upset by the fact that the flick ends on a cliffhanger that raises additional questions you might be inclined to seek answers to if you didn't hafta get to work on that busted garbage disposal unit you've been puttin' off since last April.
The acting is middling and feels as though nearly everyone involved was just going through the motions to get this thing in the can as quickly as possible. Only Chuck Connors rises to the occasion as the grizzled "professional hunter" and thank cripes for that, because without him the movie's score probably sinks 10 - 12 points lower than it already is. Even the normally entertaining Marc Singer doesn't seem to give a flip about the proceedins, and if Marc don't give a damn why the heck should we? Micah Grant gives an awkward performance as the gratuitous nephew of the deceased, but fortunately for him the equally gratuitous uncredited actress playing Anthony Geary's wife in the early goings eclipses his inadequacies by a factor of several times so that he need not feel he was the weakest member of the cast. The remaining cast members don't really warrant mentioning, as they were neither capable of inspiring any kind of positive emotional response, nor inadequate enough to elicit an entertaining ironic one.
Here's who matters and why: Anthony Geary (Night Life, Black Sabbath), Marc Singer (House Hunting, Dragonquest, Beastmaster 1 - 3, Droid Gunner, Dead Space, Watchers III, and the V miniseries), Micah Grant (To Die For, Waxwork), Chuck Connors (Soylent Green, Tourist Trap, Maniac Killer, Werewolf the series, The Horror at 37,000 Feet, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City), Vaughn Armstrong (The Philadelphia Experiment, Coma), Lori Birdsong (Blood Salvage, Munchies). Anthony Geary would be best known as Luke Spencer in roughly 1000 episodes of General Hospital, and Chuck Connors would probably prefer you remember him for any of the following roles (The Sarge in Airplane II, Jason McCord on Branded, Lucas McCain on The Rifleman, Burn Sanderson in Old Yeller).
The special effects are equally milquetoast and consist almost entirely of a semi-negative lens filter to represent alien vision. I'm not sure what it's called, but it's got an appearance akin to a film negative filter that's colored in order to give a psychotronic look, and it's neither interesting nor especially effective. The alien dome placed over the survivors near the climax is alright for 1989, while the animal carcasses range from authentic (deer) to pitiful (the bear, in what appears to be rug form), with the bodies of Chuck's horses falling somewhere between due to their being wisely concealed beneath sheets. That said, the alien corpse is pretty decent, albeit wasted when you consider the work involved only to have its complete screentime total eight or nine seconds.
The shooting locations are without a doubt the film's greatest asset, with all the exteriors being filmed on location at Tent Rocks, New Mexico, and Puye Cliffs, New Mexico. Admittedly, when you're asked to discuss a movie's greatest strengths and you lead with the filming locations and the cinematography there's about a 90% chance the movie sucks a great deal of hinder, but when your options are to endure something this dull with spectacular scenery, or not, you've gotta take what you can get. You've got sedimentary rockfaces, pointed tent-like rock formations (hence the name), pine woods, and a nice little steam that weaves its way through the woods near one of the flick's two main campsites, and it's worth noting that the area's clear enough to shoot without much terrain inconvenience, while still maintaining the look of authentic wilderness. The interiors aren't bad either, and although it looks as though they built a set for the interior shots of the Santa Clarita Pueblo, the fact that it's not obvious means that they did a nice job, if it is in fact a set. So nice work on the location scouting end of things.
The soundtrack is filled with a lot of that mystical woodwind music meant to give modern audiences a feeling of the supernatural heebies and build an atmosphere based around the mystique of people and places much older than ourselves. Depending on the movie these tracks sometimes have a Native American tinge, other times it's an Asian aura, or maybe an Aboriginal aesthetic, but the goal is always the same, and it's to remind us white folks that we're outta our element and that we better watch our asses. It's pretty cliched stuff, but it does establish a little mood and generate some atmosphere, and it's not the composer's fault that it never actually pays any dividends in the way of thrills. Overall, Hill Desert Kill yields all of four kills (all of which occur off-camera), and features little to no action or intrigue as it plays out over an excruciating 89 minutes. Might be a good story for Jordan Peele to whittle down and spice up for the latest iteration of The Twilight Zone, but as a feature film, the story's just stretched too thin to achieve any level of sustained entertainment.