must confess that when I first settled down to read “Terror in the Desert: Dark
Cinema of the American Southwest”, a new book from McFarland by film-maker Brad
Sykes, it was with a distinctly doubtful attitude, insomuch that I couldn’t
quite believe there were enough films in existence to qualify its topic as an
authentic sub-genre. Surely it would be a padded affair...
an introduction in which the author outlines his discovery of and enthusiasm
for the films he identifies as “desert terrors” – distinguished specifically by
the dusty, inhospitable locations in which they’re set – if, just 6-pages in,
my doubts weren’t already being challenged, throughout the 275 ensuing pages
they were suitably quelled; by the end I was completely won over.
under-populated when compared to the staple sub-genres of slashers, vampires,
zombies, nature-gone-crazy and their ilk (most of which have members in their
community with facets that earn them a spot in the “desert terrors”
arena), there are nevertheless a surprising number of titles identified and
discussed in the book, many of which had previously slipped under my radar.
Quite a few of the films under examination have enjoyed their moment in the
mainstream sunshine, rendering them (if only in name) familiar even to
cinephiles with no interest in horror movies– From Dusk Till Dawn, Eight Legged
Freaks, Tremors, Duel, The Hills Have Eyes, The Hitcher – but it was the
intriguing-sounding entries I’d never heard of before which proved the most
intriguing aspect of Sykes’ book for me. There won’t be many with a passion for
cinematic terrors who, after having read about such titles as Raw Courage,
Mirage, Road Killers or The Sadist (the latter cited by the author as the one
which started it all back in 1963, and to which he devotes a whole chapter),
will be able to resist an online search into their availability.
discussing these films the text deigns to demonstrate, if I may quote the
author, “...how the genre has evolved over the years due to social, economic,
and political changes as well as stylistic technical transitions within the
movie industry.” If that makes it all sound rather hifalutin, be assured it
isn’t. Sykes writes authoritatively and informatively and never becomes bogged
down in thesis-style analytics. In fact, so readable is his relaxed writing
style that ultimately his enthusiasm becomes infectious.
in the Desert” is an engrossing – and for this reader, educational –
accomplishment and one that I’d not hesitate to recommend. There’s a handy A-Z
appendix at the back cataloguing over 150 key titles, and it was nice to be
reminded of movies I’d seen many moons ago, Sykes’ commentary about which
filled me with the incentive for a revisit; Death Valley, The Velvet Vampire,
Prey of the Chameleon, Ghost Town and Kingdom of the Spiders, to name but a
from the propensity to occasionally run a little too hot in recounting plot
detail – though fortunately it is only occasional – my one reservation in terms
of value for money with regard this slightly pricey volume is that pictorially
it’s pretty underwhelming, with an extensive number of its 100+ b/w images
being reproductions of (mostly) bland DVD sleeves and VHS cartons.
what did I take away with me from my immersion in “Terror in the Desert”? Definitely
a desire to widen my viewing ever further, but moreover that there really does
seem to be such a thing as the “desert terrors” sub-genre. Who knew? Certainly