It's a bit rubbish, really. What it's got going for it is that low-budget 1970s authenticity, but that's about it, really.
This was Wes Craven's second film after The Last House on the Left (1972), which is even more raw than this but goes for the jugular with revenge killings, ultra-violence and of course all that rape. That's a hard film to like, but it definitely has power. This one has a similar kind of amateurishness, with no characterisation at all for half the cast and most of what we do get coming from the actors rather than the script. That I don't mind so much. It's a horror film. Obviously one would prefer something a bit more crafted, but this isn't a genre where the script tends to be very important.
What did surprise me was the low-key bad guys. This film was inspired by the stories of Sawney Beane and his cannibal family from Scotland in the 15th century. If you've ever read up on that unspeakably gross bit of alleged history, you'll now be salivating too. Sounds good, right? In fact what we get are two indistinguishably hairy blokes, a bald retard, a caveman girl who's on the side of the angels and someone who looks like Mama Fratelli from The Goonies. Surprisingly there hasn't even been any inbreeding. Instead we're in the desert near a nuclear testing site, so presumably these are all mutants who glow in the dark and are carrying around multiple tumours. These folks are certainly unpleasant and I'm glad I'm not living next door to them, but somehow I never really found them scary. The most appalling thing about them is their table manners. Bald Retard is great and he's the one you'll see on all the posters and DVD sleeves, but everyone else is a bit forgettable.
Pitted against them are an American family who've taken an ill-advised detour on the way to California. In a fight between the two families, I'd be tempted to go for the good guys. They have guns, greater numbers and two snarling German Shepherds. Doing the hero roll-call gives us three couples:
(a) the grandparents, who get most of that aforementioned characterisation. He was a cop for 25 years in "the worst goddamn precinct in Cleveland", while she's a sweet religious lady who has a flexible relationship with reality.
(b) a younger couple with a baby.
(c) an even younger couple, who may or may not be brother and sister. I'm not sure. The male's almost as pretty as the female, but he also gets to be brooding and paranoid after he's found one of the dogs slit open and yet decided not to tell anyone. I liked him, actually. He's putting in a wholehearted performance with brave 1970s acting that's exactly what you want in a film like this.
Oh, and I should mention the weatherbeaten old local who knows about the tribe. If this were a Western, he'd be a gold prospector called Old-Timer. He has history with his unlovable neighbours.
There are a few nice script bits. The tribe aren't just cavemen, but can use CB radios and even have enough imagination to get clever with them. I was also amused by the film turning into Home Alone. Unfortunately there's also the bit where Bald Retard manages to leave his knife out of reach when he's attacked by a dog... TWICE.
No, as usual with horror, you're watching mostly for the style. There isn't much gore, but it's shot in a snapshot fashion that leaves you wanting to rewind the DVD to be sure of exactly what you saw. Meanwhile the violence is sudden and the fights intense, being to the death and often in confined spaces. Meanwhile the actors are taking it all admirably seriously, throwing caution to the winds as they hurl themselves around the desert. I'm not convinced that Wes Craven makes enough of the setting, though. It should be possible to wring more creepiness out of being stranded in a cannibal-ridden desert at night.
Somehow so far this film has managed to get a sequel, a remake and a sequel to the remake. I can see the point in the remake, anyway. There's nothing wrong with the basic genre and it shouldn't be hard to improve on what we have here. Oh, it's certainly not worthless. I love low-budget 1970s stuff. The film also has its own kind of slow-burning integrity, making us wait for ages for a bit of action and ending on what might have been meant to be a note of "you have become the monsters". Bearing in mind the nuclear testing site, you could perhaps try to impose a USA vs. USSR superpower reading on to the rival families' fight for survival. (I'm not saying that this would be very convincing, but it could be done.) It's just that the film's short both on characterisation for its heroes and on memorable villains. They're sick, violent scum, but only Bald Retard is even a pimple on the backside of, say, the clan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
There isn't even any nudity. I'd been hoping the girl in the orange shirt might get them out, but no.