A married couple separated from the world (and each other) by a lost highway and endless dark sands, stalked by strangers in a strange land. Director Philip Leacock projects Richard Matheson’s domestic trauma upon the fragile tapestry of nightmare, weaving an infernal mystery that soon descends like a funeral shroud.
Jean and Bob Mitchell bicker and argue their way across the burning sands of Arizona towards their home in Los Angeles, their vacation now firmly in the cracked rearview mirror. Hostility broils between them like the desert heat but underneath is still the love and affection that hints at a happy marriage, buried by the shifting sands of time only to resurface like an artifact of some ancient ritual. As the sun bleeds upon the horizon and the road to home stretches like a long shadow, they stop at a tiny Diner and Motel that sits alone amid the wastelands of sage brush and cactus. This dilapidated haunt sticks out from the earth like a jagged bone, a compound fracture breaking dead skin. Within, two sweaty men ignore their requests for food and drink, good old boys up to a bad old time.
And here Matheson begins to create this dreaded frisson between our fears and our sense of a just world, turning reality upside down within a momentary lapse of unreason. Jean uses the restroom and in those few moments when she returns, her husband is gone. Her impatience soon turns to a surreal anxiety as the two men ignore her pleas for help or information, their smirks and winks an infuriating pretense that conceals the truth. These two men belittle Jean and make her feel like a stupid woman, their machismo a miasma that attempts to suffocate her femininity. In these neck of the woods (or desert, I should say) men rule with an iron fist and gut.
Matheson’s tight script focuses upon Jean and her reactions to this taunting ridicule, as she tries to convince someone to help her find her husband. This complete desperation subtracts her humanity almost to the point of animal cunning, and it’s painfully slow to watch. Cloris Leachman as Jean delivers a powerhouse performance that is totally believable as she devolves from wife to victim….to survivor. Ned Beatty as the wretched antagonist is chilling in the desert heat, and this time he’s making someone else squeal and squirm. His eyes seem evilly playful like a child torturing a kitten only to deny this very fact when caught blood-red handed. Magnificent.
The final act races towards a gruesome climax as the secret is revealed in the heat of the night, as Jean and Bob fight not to become permanent residents of this motel Arizona. They stab it with their steely knives and hope to kill the beast.
Final Grade: (A)