"Stay in the main road" is the warning ignored by most protagonists of the decade's shake-up "American Nightmare" horror period, and here it strands a camperful of middle-class folks in the middle of an arid Southwest wasteland, with a clan of inbred cannibals peeking from behind the rocks. Not nearly as confrontational in its audience-torturing nihilism as his Last House on the Left debut, Wes Craven's shoestring follow-up shares a similar interest in complacent suburbanites stripped off civilization and forced to face animalistic broken-mirror images, and with despairing patriarchs freeze-framed with sanguine hands. For all the guerilla shock tactics (gutted dogs, nightly attacks, the hanging threat of a baby turning into food), Craven's horror is in the awareness of how short a distance separates the two familial polar opposites -- as befits the picture's post-Romero tropes, the pelt-covered, misshapen brood (bestially lorded over by James Whitworth) carries hints of national traumas swept under the carpet and of oppressed Others (most notably Native-Americans), while the allegedly all-American white-breads are revealed as far from pure (the values extolled by docile matriarch Virginia Vincent are undercut by father Russ Grieve's racist drool). If any hope is to be found in the young generations, it's not before gallons of blood flow, and the bourgeois men (Robert Houston, Martin Speer) get acquainted with the barbarian within -- basically the primeval-killer philosophy from Straw Dogs, not getting any less vacuous. Next to the grueling transgression of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, its vise grip slackens and the intensity disperses as the plot grinds on, though Craven's eye remains as sardonically prankish as Tobe Hooper's -- Vincent's corpse gets propped on a lawn chair as mutant bait, and a camper raid pauses long enough for the snaggle-toothed intruder to snack on a parakeet. With Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace Stone, John Steadman, and Janus Blythe.
--- Fernando F. Croce