Horror in the High Desert

My husband is required by some sort of internal code of his own making to watch every mockumentary style horror movie. Sometimes that means we end up with 100 Ghost Street, or that movie whose title escapes me where the spirit of Typhoid Mary materializes and gives a ghost hunter her recipe for shepherd’s pie. I, of course being the one in the marriage who has more refined tastes, I will hit you with Lake Mungo or The Collingswood Story. I’m also the same person who was dumb enough to believe that The Last Broadcast was a documentary despite the fact that I caught it in the wee hours on the Sci-Fi channel, but in my defense I had a newborn at the time and was sleep deprived.

And sometimes, you throw your Pokeball at a level 30 Eevee without dealing her any damage first and you catch her and you just happen to have a water stone in your bag and you can turn her right into a Vaporeon in time to go fight the Team Star Fire Crew, meaning we pick a found footage horror on Amazon Prime and it turns out to be the absolute power gem that is Horror in the High Desert.

I will admit that I also believed that Horror in the High Desert was a documentary when we first put it on, but that’s down to the convincing acting from all the interviewees. They all sell it. Obviously made with the pandemic filming style of single person interviews combined with drone footage of the desert, and faux v-logs from the unfortunate subject of the film, Horror in the High Desert is one of the best projects to come out of this necessary style of shooting. And I have seen a lot of them. Most of them consisted of celebrities in their living rooms talking to other celebrities on Zoom, but this is a film that transcends what we’re surely going to have to consider a new genre at this point.

It helps that they used unknown actors, and that the small size of the cast lends a lot to the growing feeling of isolation. There are two people close to the documentary subject, two investigators (although interestingly, neither of them are police), and then the old videos of the missing man whose fate we learn of from found footage. I should give him a name and a synopsis. He’s Gary, a sweet guy who loves model trains and extreme hiking. And I mean “parking your truck in the desert and walking away from it for three days and foraging for food and water” extreme hiking. When Gary doesn’t come back from a hiking trip, his sister reports him missing. And then things get weirder and more shocking, both with stories of the distant past and stories of Gary’s previous solo jaunts, until we finally find out What Happened to Gary. And we kind of wish we hadn’t seen that happening, even though we would have died of curiosity if we hadn’t.

I really, really want you all to go watch this and also the sequel that just came out. Both are on Amazon. So I don’t want to say tooooo much, but I have three points.

First of all, you have to watch the found footage portion at the end very carefully or you will miss something moving in the dark where you don’t think anything is there. Don’t look down at your phone as we all are so tempted to do, but keep your eyes on the TV. Unless of course you’re watching the movie on your phone, then look at your phone.

Secondly, I have only one criticism, and that is that the impact of trolls on a simple v-log is kind of overemphasized. It’s like that might have been the real horror of the film, what online asshats can do to your mind, and how quickly people will turn on a content creator. Gary kind of fed the trolls I suppose, and got fed to them in the process.

I know trolling can be extremely damaging, but it usually happens on anonymous platforms. Like people crawl out from under a sticky keyboard and pretend to be experts at whatever obscure thing you’ve mentioned: you got fleebafourbaphobia, well brother they got fleebafourbafibaphobia, and you know nothing of their work.

But having your loyal followers suddenly turn vicious over a video that doesn’t reveal you as a criminal or an abuser or something, is hard to believe. And I know I’m opening myself up to trolling here, but I had to say it.

The other thing is a praise. When we get through all the extremely effective buildup and finally get to the truth, there’s this horrifying sound that plays in Gary’s final moments. I struggle with how to describe it. It’s like a bird song filtered through that weird unearthly echo that recordings of the 1930s had, and it doesn’t seem to go with what then pops out of the darkness. But then the sound Dr. Freudstein made in House by the Cemetery didn’t go with him either. I don’t want to know how the sound was made in real life, in terms of sound design, instead I want to know what made the sound in the context of the story, and why. I’m hoping the sequel will get into that.

P.S. I’m really freaked out by horror movie noises in general, more than anything else about these movies we love to traumatize ourselves with. Like the back masking record playing in Trick or Treat, or the disembodied voice that simply says “Dream on,” to Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder. That tape of the guy talking that they find in the basement in The Evil Dead; people nowadays laugh at that movie for some reason but have you heard that tape? Ditto for the tape in House by the Cemetery.

I think I’m like this because when I was little I used to put on a record to go to sleep to, and my parents had a huge record collection so inevitably some of them were scratched, and you know how a record will skip and keep playing the same section over and over? I’d be almost asleep and then the nice music would become this Eldritch Abomination. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.