A family film.
The extended Carter clan, led by Big Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel (Virginia Vincent), is taking a cross-country trip to Los Angeles with their adult children Brenda (Susan Lanier), Bobby (Robert Houston), Lynne Wood (Dee Wallace) and her husband Doug (Martin Speer) and child as well as the two family dogs, Beauty and Beast. After being warned to stay out of the desert by Fred (John Steadman) , the guy at a dilapidated gas station, they go out into the desert and meet Fred’s boy Jupiter (James Whitworth) and his clan of unfriendly inbred nuclear mutant cannibalistic unwashed desert rats….
The Carter family is shown as a clan that could easily be featured in any film family drama or comedy. They’ve been on the road a long time and are starting to get short with one another, they have an implied history that shows that all is not perfect and Big Bob – to differentiate him from Bobby – is your typical 60s – 70s patriarch who does his best to be the Authoritarian Big Man in Charge no matter what might happen. It’s a credit to the screenwriter and the actors that the family feels like a real entity, a group that we, the audience, might have known at some point. The problem with authoritarian patriarchs though is, when they are removed from the picture, it’s so shocking to the remaining family that they are temporarily unable to act independently. This moment of horror is enough to allow the bad guys a chance to get access to the camper and kill Lynne and steal her baby for food. This sort of behavior is generally frowned upon by polite society.
Speaking of nice folks, the mutant family circus is an interesting group. Back in the day when Fred strongly objected to young Jupiter killing Mrs. Fred and showed his unhappiness by beating Jupiter with a tire iron, he had no idea what he was unleashing upon the world. Jupiter grabbed “some whore no one would miss” (Cordy Clark) and had three mutant sons Mars (Lance Gordon), Pluto (Michael Berryman), and Mercury (producer Peter Locke) as well as less-deformed daughter Ruby (Janus Blythe) who somehow missed out on the planet / Roman gods’ names. These folks are highwaymen in the old sense of the word since they hide out in the wilderness and ambush anyone unwise enough to enter their hunting grounds. Since the old road isn’t traveled much anymore, one does have to wonder what the family dines on these days between sweet, sweet babies. That’s a minor problem though, however, it does explain why Fred is leaving and maybe why the clan is so enthusiastic about this current group.
The events of the film build nicely, from the old man who warns the Carters to stay out of the desert to the very reasonable way in which the family separates to find help before they know there’s a problem. As the mutants close in on the Carters, they remain mostly unaware, aside from Bobby’s discovery of Beauty’s gutted form. Until Big Bob is crucified and roasted and the baby is snatched, everyone is content to just hide in the trailer and hope everything turns out okay. Losing the baby is the tipping point in the narrative when formerly wussy Doug goes hunting while Brenda and Bobby set a trap for Jupiter. The film actually has two wild cards: Beast the dog and Ruby. Beast manages to kill Mercury early on and chews up Pluto’s hamstring so he does alright. Ruby, for reasons not adequately explained, decides that killing a baby is wrong and turns on her family, killing Mars with a rattlesnake. This all progresses well, though the ferocity shown in Big Bob’s death is not repeated. The end of the film cuts off abruptly, a move that leaves everything in an unpleasant state rather than offering any kind of wrap up.
The meaning of this film is best thought of in terms of territory or possibly clan versus clan. The idea of civilized city people encountering rural psychopaths was particularly popular in the 1970s as evidenced by the successes of Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (to which this film owes a particular debt). These films are the embodiment of the classic American ideal of rugged individualism in which a man stands up for his family and fights back in a particularly brutal and macho fashion. Big Bob fails this test, but his brood would make him proud by beating the desert rats in their own territory, showing the superiority of their family over Jupiter’s. The desert rats are simply a pack of scavengers / opportunistic hunters who have gotten good at their work, but also complacent over the years; when faced with real opponents they fail to be able to effectively counterattack. As much as anything, this is the result of the failure of Jupiter’s manhood since he’s a coward who picks off stragglers and refuses to fight anyone directly.
The other thing this film has to offer that is quite unusual – more unusual than a dog dying, an event that lets us know that anything could happen – is the presence and use of the baby. Typically, filmmakers in general avoid any hint of a baby in danger; even within horror, a genre known for pushing boundaries, it is done very rarely. In this film, the baby is not simply in mortal danger, but being considered as a nice supper. A baby in danger is not something to be used lightly, and the film is up to the situation, making the loss of the baby the event that galvanizes the response of the Carters against the hill clan.
Despite being derivative of several other films as well as the legend of the Scottish cannibal family Sawney Bean – who, no doubt, became cannibals to save money on food – this one is good enough that all of that is forgivable. This film was popular enough that it launched a bunch of imitators, which is also forgivable. The biggest problem with this film is that, out in the desert, it stretches credibility quite a bit to say that a family of six would be able to get enough food from travelers to exist all those years. Further, it’s especially unlikely that their predations, on the level required for mere sustenance, would not be noticed in rural California. Other films, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, dealt with this issue by having the cannibalism be an occasional treat rather than their main source of nutrition.