Ralph (Mike Cartel) and Jason (Al Valletta) are a couple of dorky worm-wranglers bored witless in the Nevada desert till they see two guys bury a large black box in a shallow grave. So they decide to investigate only to find the box contains an unconscious beautiful blonde woman named Fate (Seeska Vandenberg). Mere moments later Ralph and Jason are ambushed at gunpoint by an entire gang of hot women who bring them back to their secret headquarters. Imprisoned in the basement for days the boys are eventually set free when leader Hesperia (Cindy Donlan) decides they are worthy to join the cult. Which basically entails being forced to do menial chores around the place and serve as sex slaves for the insatiable babes. Ralph wants to get the hell out of here but Jason, perhaps understandably, reckons there are worse things in life and grows increasingly comfortable. Eventually Ralph learns from the ever-smiling Fate it was the Mafia that dumped in the box as part of a double-cross after the lady cultists help rip off a cache of platinum. Now the girls plan on staging a raid on the mob to steal back their priceless case-load of platinum.
Make no mistake, Runaway Nightmare is one of the weirdest films you are likely to see. While not necessarily good it is bizarrely compelling exerting a genuine hold on the viewer while weaving its strange, dreamlike spell. This was the sole directorial effort from triple-threat Mike Cartel. A one-time carnival worker turned cop and eventual actor, he played small roles in a handful of B movies – notably Pets (1974) – appeared in numerous television commercials and handled second unit on a few films including Bitter Heritage (1979), a crime thriller with Rory Calhoun and Lauren Langdon which he also wrote and acted in, but Runaway Nightmare was his crackpot magnum opus. Part horror, part neo-noir thriller, part dopey comedy the film is a strange brew indeed that in its better moments comes across like a less self-aware country cousin to a Coen brothers movie.
As a director Cartel treads a fine line between ineptitude and genuine off-kilter imagination. He fails to coax a single convincing performance from his amateur cast yet somehow their monotone line-readings only enhance the darkly humorous nightmarish atmosphere. The low budget shows in a number of amateurish sequences. Cartel, who also did his own editing, makes a lot of first year film student mistakes and yet the photography is surprisingly accomplished even if the sound recording is piss poor. Though drawing heavily from the horror and hard-boiled crime genres much of the film is structured around a series of performance art skits with Ralph and Jason stumbling through encounters with the various eccentric women in a manner oddly reminiscent of Jerry Lewis in The Ladies Man (1961). Take for example Vampiria (Alexis Alexander), the spooky pale skinned chick in the Dracula cape, who enjoys posing as a living artwork in an actual picture frame. Or the sharpshooter who keeps blasting bullets at the wall inches away from Ralph's head because she "saw a spider there." Or the moment Jason beds down with an attractive girl who inexplicably morphs into her overweight friend.
While it is hard to tell whether Cartel is attempting an anti-feminist satire or a masochistic male fantasy, given Ralph and Jason's wry reaction to every oddball twist in the nutty narrative one it often seems like a good-natured joke. At one point Jason remarks their whole misadventure is like some kind of wet dream. Seconds later he and Ralph are tied to stakes suspended over a pit of fire. "Never had a wet dream like this before", deadpans Ralph. On the one hand the film adopts a conservative tone in satirizing the hippie values of the previous decade through the nonsense philosophies of the women. At the same time it is surprisingly subversive in showing its heroes reduced to house work and sexual servitude, something a downtrodden mid-western housewife has to cope with every day. With their self-deprecating wisecracks and quiet desperation to escape a dull mid-western life, Ralph and Jason anticipate Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward's bored blue collar desert dwellers in Tremors (1990) although the film is not in that class. Things climax with a chaotic mass shootout and a round of double-crosses with a brazen nod to Kiss Me Deadly (1955) before title cards reveal the fate of each character a la American Graffitti (1973) and one last weird supernatural twist. Once seen this cannot be forgotten. It is down to personal taste if that is a good or bad thing.