Horror in the High Desert opens with some beautiful black and white footage of clouds over the Nevada desert before shifting to skeletonized animals and a nest of rattlesnakes. Then with a flash of lightning, it transforms into colour as a woman calls 911 about her missing brother.
It’s a dramatic start to the latest film from writer/director Dutch Marich (Infernum, Reaptown). Horror in the High Desert is a change of pace for him, it’s a mockumentary about the search for Gary Hinge (Eric Mencis) a missing outdoorsman in the style of Bear Grylls although thankfully without the urine drinking.
We learn about him via interviews with his sister Beverly (Tonya Williams Ogden), roommate Simon (Errol Porter) and Gal Roberts (Suziey Block, Dude Bro Party Massacre III, Wonder Valley), a reporter for the local radio station. We also learn about Beverly’s conflicts and suspicions towards Simon. And some anger toward her brother for events in the past.
This is all handled in a compelling if somewhat low-key manner. We’re never given a reason to feel like this is anything other than a true-crime murder mystery, the kind we might see on Discovery or Netflix, only with a smaller cast. I was just waiting for a development that would seem to incriminate one of them. But that would have been too easy a direction for the film to take.
Eventually, after the discovery of Gary’s truck, Beverly hires detective William ‘Bill’ Salerno (David Morales, Hunting, The Dark Hand) to look into the case. It’s a signal that things are about to change when he’s introduced firing a handgun into an open field. He’s also the type who brags about threatening to expose a closeted gay man to the less than accepting townsfolk in order to make him cooperate.
Between that and a sudden revelation about Gary, Horror in the High Desert begins to take a darker turn at this point. Both in terms of the mystery of what he encountered and the reaction of his online followers. Cyberbullying was not an issue I expected to run across in a film like this, but Marich makes it a credible, and pivotal, plot point.
This is also one of the few places I thought Horror in the High Desert stumbled. As a dedicated vlogger with a large following one would think Gary would have taken a camera on his trip and gotten some footage of what he saw. And how did his sister manage to accidentally delete it without having control of his account?
As it turns out though Gary shot one more video, and the final act goes into found footage territory. Working as cinematographer along with Daniel Valle and Tim Vidrine, Marich does a great job of making ordinary things look menacing in the camera’s night vision. There’s some real tension built up here, especially as you have no idea what to look for or what’s out there. Just that it’s there.
Unlike many of these films, Horror in the High Desert does give the audience answers but not all of them. While we do learn Gary’s fate there’s enough left unanswered to leave you wondering. And to leave room for a hinted follow-up.
Some viewers may feel a bit let down when they find out what’s out there, but I was satisfied with it. It was not only a logical explanation, it reminded me of a certain cult film from the 70s as well.