Monday, August 24, 2020

"I Heard What You Said But Can You Say It in a Different Way?" - Runaway Nightmare (1982) - Film #184

I must point out the axiom that films intended by their filmmakers to be quirky "cult" movies generally do not rise to the level of high-quality films we discuss here on Senseless Cinema. Runaway Nightmare (1982) is a rare exception to that axiom, however. Although the filmmakers clearly aim for a whimsical, comedic, unusual effect, their work rises to a higher level than that of a mere "comedy." Runaway Nightmare is, in fact, an almost pure distillation of a nightmare captured on film.

Many of your universe's distinguished critics find the film to be either "bad" or "weird." For example, reviewer Michael_Elliott writes, "For my money this was one of the worst and most boring films I've ever seen. I mean, you've pretty much got nothing happening throughout the 93-minute running time. You keep watching the movie expecting something of interest to happen but it never does. The film continues to drag along and there's still nothing." Reviewer EyeAskance describes the film as a "thoroughly uncategorizable whatever-the-hell-it-is is far and away one of the most aberrant gonzo visions ever committed to celluloid." And reviewer Hey_Sweden writes, "Runaway Nightmare" is not going to be for people who prefer lots of action and explosions every few minutes. It's a very sedately paced and quirky little oddity."

Read on for a more objective view of this serious, shocking motion picture...

In the desert, a pickup truck drives to DEATH VALLEY INSECT RANCH. Nearby, the owners of the ranch, Ralph and Jason, argue about their lives. Jason complains, “I’d like a little adventure, some excitement. I just wish something would happen. Anything.”

As he speaks, we see the two men from the pickup carry a coffin-like box along the bottom of a hill. They start to dig a hole for it.

Ralph notices the men. When they leave, Ralph and Jason use their hands to dig up the box. Shockingly, they open the box to find a nude blonde woman—who is still alive.

They decide to put her in their van, take her home, and call the police, but they are oblivious to the fact that two young women are watching them from behind a boulder.

Back at their ranch house (their business, according to a new sign, has changed its name from DEATH INSECT RANCH to DEATH VALLEY WORM RANCH), before they call the police, they find themselves on the wrong end of a home invasion by the women. Also, the woman on the bed disappears, but they soon find her sleeping in the bathtub.

The four women kidnap Ralph and Jason, driving them across the desert in their gold van to a charming house at the foot of a mountain.

One of the women guards Ralph and Jason in the living room. Right in front of her, easily within earshot, Jason says, “It’s just us and her right now, so you get her from behind and I’ll keep her busy from right here.”

“Okay,” says Ralph. 

The fire in the fireplace crackles with electricity for some reason, giving Ralph the opportunity to stand up. He never makes a move, however. The woman guarding them says, “Hesperia will decide” what is to happen. So Ralph and Jason just wait in the living room with the women, who now number at least nine. Eventually, Ralph gets impatient and tries to leave, but he finds Hesperia at the front door. She slugs him, knocking him out.

Ralph and Jason are imprisoned in the basement, threatened by one of the young women with a whip, who says robotically, “I’m into bondage and discipline.”

Ralph quips, “All things considered, I’d rather be eaten by the worms.”

The woman tries to brand Ralph with a branding iron. Somehow he breaks the beam to which he is chained and falls over, though he is still tied to the beam and apparently unwilling to run away.

Hesperia appears and scolds the woman. “You broke the agreement.”

The woman responds, “The voice told me to kill.” (“The voice” has never been mentioned before.)

“We live by the laws,” Hesperia replies. Presumably, the local laws allow kidnapping, torture, and human branding.

“Then I want to settle up with a duel.” She challenges Hesperia to a pistol duel, which allows the filmmakers to simulate a Western movie while the other women, along with Ralph and Jason, watch.

After a few suspenseful seconds, the challenger’s pistol explodes, which I don’t recognize as a standard Western trope. One of the women explains, “Hesperia gave Sadie a trick gun.”

Another woman comments, “Oh wow man, her head’s all gone.” Her head, or lack thereof, is not shown.

Later, the woman draw Tarot cards to determine what to do with Ralph and Jason. Oddly, they decide to allow the men to join their group (or their cult, or club, or whatever it is). “First you have to go through the tests,” Hesperia says.

“Don’t worry, this is probably just some kind of initiation,” Jason says, proving he understands the meaning of the word “initiation.”

“I don’t want to go through one of their tests and come out with a high-pitched voice,” jokes Ralph.

The first “test” involves the two handing from two pipes for an indeterminate period of time. The second and final “test” has them approached by two of the women, nude, in a hay-strewn basement.

At a gathering of the women, Hesperia says, “I think they’re ready now.” Another woman tells the men, “You’re one of us now.” Hesperia explains that Ralph and Jason will give all their belongings to the group and then they will all share equally in communal profits. “The profits will start coming in just as soon as we get through the revenge and steal back the platinum.”

Ralph, confused, asks, “I, uh, I heard what you said, but can you say it in a different way?”

Hesperia explains more clearly that the women were supposed to “deliver” a shipment of platinum but they were double-crossed by mobsters. When they get revenge on the mobsters, they will retrieve the platinum. Also, they are arms dealers who use a plane to transport guns across the Mexican border.

In an entertaining scene recalling vintage Bob Denver antics, a woman hands Ralph an axe and tells him to chop some logs into splinters. He raises the axe as if to chop the woman, only to bump the axe head against the rifle another woman is pointing at him. Smiling guiltily, Ralph starts chopping the wood, but only for a second, as the woman with the rifle takes him to a room, disrobes, and awkwardly embraces him.

There follows perhaps the film’s most famous scene. Everyone is eating dinner quietly at a table as the camera pans along all the women as well as Ralph and Jason. Suddenly, one of the women bursts out with, “Bug farmers!” and laughs hysterically.

This happens again a few minutes later, with no response from anybody.

A minute later, Ralph runs out of the room because he has been given a “hot foot”—a prank that exists only in pre-1950 cartoons involving a lit match and a shoe.

Eventually, the women force Ralph to drive them across the desert to a bar, revealing that their gold Ford Econoline van is equipped with a brass four-poster bed in the back, complete with red silk sheets.

In the bar, Jason starts a low-key bar fight that seems to occur in slow motion and results in Jason being punched several times while nobody notices a fight is going on.

Later, back at the house, Ralph tries to find a place to sleep. One of the women (dressed like Dracula) shoots at him when he opens her door. There is also a painting on one wall that is actually a frame for another of the women dressed as if in a portrait. A comical running gag is set up in which several of the women want to have sex with Ralph, but he just wants to go to sleep.

There is also a series of blackout gags involving Ralph and a noose.

Eventually, they initiate the mission of assaulting a mob warehouse to steal a suitcase full of platinum. After a few minutes of riding in the van (sans the four-poster bed this time), they reach a nondescript block building in the desert—though it has more windows than one might expect from a warehouse.

“Ralph and Jason will attack the warehouse from the south window,” one of the women says.

“The whole two of us?” Ralph asks.

As Ralph and Jason break into the warehouse, they trigger a loud alarm, though the two security men on the premises don’t react to the alarm, and neither do Ralph and Jason. A camera picks up the intruders. Over video, the guards, shaking their heads, watch Ralph and Jason wander around the warehouse. Comically, Ralph falls down a flight of steps.

In a sequence of events that might be described as confusing, the women retrieve the suitcase full of platinum by pointing a gun at someone we’ve never seen, and Jason finds a time bomb sitting on top of a box. “Hey,” he asks one of the women, “is that a real time bomb?”

“Don’t touch that, stupid,” she replies.

Ralphs, however, appears to set the timer, for no conceivable reason. The presence of the bomb is moot, though, because it doesn’t explode. The film cuts back to the house in the desert, where the women have a dance party.

When Jason leaves with one of the women, Ralph tries unsuccessfully to open the suitcase. When he touches it, he says “It’s hot, I burned myself” three times, indicating it might not be platinum after all.

After a few minutes, a group of men, presumably gangsters, approach the house and begin firing guns. The women plan to take their plane and fly away, though there isn’t enough room for Ralph and Jason. Oddly, the “plane” turns out to be a small two-seater helicopter, into which a dozen or so women pile. The helicopter takes off, leaving Ralph and Jason behind. Ralph gets out of the house by jumping through a window.

Ralph is captured and taken back to the warehouse, where he sits near the still-ticking time bomb. He adjusts the clock to give it a few more hours before he is interrogated by the gangsters (who leave the bomb sitting and ticking in plain sight).

A gangster tells Ralphs, “You’re already dead. The question is, how quickly do you want to die?”

The gangster explains the suitcase doesn’t contain platinum at all, but an “experimental explosive device that ignites with air.”

The time-bomb (not the suitcase-bomb) explodes, causing a fire. Ralph has learned, however, that the girl the gangsters buried, named Fate, actually double-crossed both the gangsters and the women to steal the suitcase. Ralph arranges for Fate to pick him up so they can recover the suitcase. Of course, she double-crosses him, shooting him and driving the van away, but Ralph has prepared by wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Fate gets the suitcase, finding a metal box inside. The box begins to shake and let off light and smoke, causing a fire. Then a building explodes, presumably the building where Fate found the box.

Ralph wanders the desert, finally encountering Jason in the van, along with a few of the women. Ralph tells Jason the platinum was really plutonium and the explosion probably contaminated everything for miles. “I used to be a successful businessman,” Ralphs says. “Now I’ve got acres of rotting insects.”

“No,” one of the women says. “The bugs are still alive. Each one’s about the size of a hamster.”

“You’re the new leader,” says another woman. “We’ll do anything you tell us to do.”

In the end, Ralph and Jason hang out in the desert with the women, drinking Coke. Ralph watches a pickup with two men park nearby. The men drop off a steel barrel and drive away. Ralph and Jason stand over the barrel. They read the label: “DANGER - NUCLEAR WASTE.”

In a coda, we see what happened to Ralph due to exposure to plutonium. Confined to a strait-jacket in a research facility, Ralph grows fangs and becomes, for some reason, a vampire.

I offer the following as proof that Runaway Nightmare is not a film that originated in your universe: Worms are repeatedly called insects in the film. Of course, in every universe except yours, worms are classified as insects. In your universe, however--if my information is correct--worms are not considered insects. Why else would everyone in the film (including the sign for DEATH VALLEY INSECT RANCH) continually call worms insects and bugs? In all my years in your universe, I have never heard anyone call a worm a bug or an insect. There can be no explanation but that the film is the product of a different universe. Case, as they say, closed.