This review has been amended in light of the differences found between the newly restored DVD/BD print (presented as the main feature for that release) and the VHS edition. The DVD print has no nudity, all nudity is missing. This review was written after viewing that particular version, however the VHS alternate scenes can be found as an extra on this edition. The VHS version is a very different animal and actually runs better than the restored edition, as well as retaining the nudity. Some missing shots are featured at the bottom of this review for comparison (in VHS quality).
On paper the plot breakdown to Runaway Nightmare reads thus… two guys- worm ranchers- stumble across a naked woman buried alive in the desert. After unearthing her, saving her life, they find themselves being taken captive by a group of mercenary gun toting women. These women are deadly Satanist gun runners, hiding out in Death Valley like an all-female Manson family cult. They want their friend back (premature burial woman) and they also want to take control of their captured menfolk for their own selfish ends too. After running into some mob members, who are angry over some double crossing and a special suitcase, all hell breaks loose.
The reality is actually this … two guys- worm ranchers- stumble across a semi-naked women buried alive in the desert (we will say semi, because she has her arms crossed over her chest and this is about as close to nakedness as this film ever gets in the DVD/BD reissue print). After unearthing her, saving her life, they find themselves being taken captive by a bunch of bored looking, gun toting women. These women are bored, kind of Satanist, gun runners with a penchant for candles; hiding out in Death Valley they like to sit around having stilted conversations with each other or staring off into space with blank expressions on their faces. They want their friend back (premature burial woman) and they also want the guys to stay with them for reasons only known to the script writer (who also happens to be the director and ‘star’ too). After running into a guy with a nice perm and moustache a lot of people run around blowing things up, shouting and shooting guns.
Director Mike Cartel once made the statement that he had an issue with actors overacting. His idea was that people inadvertently ham it up for the camera; it’s just their nature to do so. A curious statement maybe, but it also becomes apparent, when applied to this film, that this is nothing but a wishy washy excuse to explain why no one actually ‘acts’ in Runaway Nightmare . Not even Cartel, who takes the place of lead worm rancher Ralph- the guy with the southern drawl and bad fringe. Instead his cast of amateurs uniformly punch out their lines in the vein of someone reading from a teleprompter. It is almost as if they have been hypnotised. There is literally zero emotion in the delivery from anyone- spare a brief moment when Ralph (Cartel) is being shot at and inexplicably descends into sniggering; an outtake I suspect that was left in.
In line with the awfulness there is some attempt to add ‘comedy’ values into the mix at inappropriate times. The reoccurring ‘gag’ with a woman screeching out “bug farmers!” before launching into a round of forced cackling is particularly grating- and repeated several times. I defy anyone not to feel a little bit ashamed they are watching this, every time that occurs.
To try and describe this as a production in any conservative terms seems even laughable. There appears to be zero budget involved in this film. Zero effects, very little action, no blood, no gore, no boobs (in the DVD/BD reissue main print). For something that aligns with 1970’s exploitation cinema in visual style, this contains not even the slightest effort to capture that essence that makes the genre so good. If you try and align this with anything else in the micro budget market from the time- and the previous decade- it becomes even clearer why all Runaway Nightmare does is represent a vacuum of semi-good ideas, turned into a void of ether and confusion by an inexperienced first time director. Even the cheesiest of exploiters often manage to gather up some semblance of entertainment value, Cartel’s project fails miserably by comparison.
To add to the mess the editing is erratic to say the least. It is almost like someone just came along with a pair of scissors and hacked out large sections at random. This just hampers any coherence- not that most of you will care about such thing after twenty minutes or so (this is the point when just aching for something to happen, anything to happen, logical or not, kicks in). Because of this rough shot approach things appear to happen inexplicably and scenes skip ahead with no explanation as to how they have developed. Although this could have all been part of Cartel’s artistic ‘vision’ given that he decides to move his own character into a completely nonsensical ending, to end all completely nonsensical endings.
You have to hand it to Mike Cartel though, he does try. Some of his badly executed ideas do provide some brief respite from the monotony; such as the helicopter scene- and you have to wonder who the hell he managed to convince to give him a helicopter given his obvious practical ineptitude. I should say the world’s tiniest helicopter, that lands with only two passengers, only for a parade of young women to come flooding out of the door- the magic of the effect ruined by the fact you can see them getting in the other side.
The only thing that does work is the score. The electronic based soundscape provides a surreal almost ominous sci-fi type vibe in the background, and although it doesn’t work in unison with the images unfolding- but let’s face it, not a lot could make them work- it does provide a very strange, otherworldly atmosphere.
With a synopsis like crazy Satan women in Death Valley running guns what could have gone so wrong? Well by now most readers should be able to detect my frustration at the lack of exploitation factors involved in the piece. That frustration is only heightened by the fact the foundations for a pretty decent romp are hidden somewhere in the initial idea. But the fact is Cartel never delivers. You get the idea he is someone who likes to laugh at things that no one else understands, and this isn’t even in a weird, curiously interesting way. There is something about Runaway Nightmare that feels terribly self-indulgent on Cartel’s part. I am all for freedom and pushing the envelope. My love for the outer-fringes has always made me seek out the weird and wonderful. I thought this was something I would find here, but sadly not.
This brings me to wonder who the hell Cartel was making this film for? Because it certainly doesn’t appear to be for any audience of the time, given the proclivity toward sex and violence of the age; he wasn’t challenging people either, or moving cinema forward as an art form into new directions. It becomes quite conundrum. When you consider the market at the time, this was 1982, year of the slasher. Filmmakers were going all out to get the blood and the boobs loaded up on celluoid; it was a time with a great sense of freedom. One that revelled in the gratuitous and fun, where American independent filmmakers were king; yet Cartel fails on every single level to bring entertainment value. There are little flashes here and there, the oddness of some of the jump editing adds a surreal nature to the piece (when considered alongside the score), but this are all they are, moments.
Verdict- So bad it really is bad. I know many of you will be tempted to watch this anyway- I was, even after reading negative reviews- but you have been warned.