In 1971, Universal Pictures released Duel, a film starring Dennis Weaver, and directed by, a not yet famous, Stephen Spielberg, from a story by Richard Matheson. In it, a businessman named, conveniently, David Mann, is pursued across the desert by a monstrous truck and the driver who insists on terrorizing him. Mann, who thinks himself a practical, but tough fellow, has to prove his masculinity, not just against the driver of the truck that menaces him for over half the movie, but against his aging vehicle, and the Mojave desert in which this drama unfolds.
The hot, barren, landscape of the desert has often been used as a backdrop to tell stories of dramatic survival, proving one’s toughness, or realizing one’s humanity. Sometimes its about surviving the people in it, as everyone competes for the bare resources that can be found there. Unlike snowy environments, the desert’s wide-open terrain, with so few obstructions, is perfect for car chases, and creating a feeling of low grade anxiety, the sense that one could get lost in such isolation. The heat heightens a person’s fear, and desperation, creating a unique form of sweaty misery. The desert is for isolationists, the place people go when they want to separate themselves from other people, or to prove their rugged individualism, or in some cases, simply go mad.
In the Western storytelling tradition, the protagonist is the person who is trying to move forward, to progress, to accomplish a goal. The antagonist is whatever that person must struggle against to reach said goal. Through that process, the person undergoes change and/or growth. The desert is an environment that can often be filmed with a single protagonist, as in 2010’s 127 Hours, as a young hiker literally struggles against the environment that has trapped him, or as in the Mad Max franchise, a cast of thousands, and still get variations on these basic messages, because it’s the desert that is the ultimate antagonist.
The desert tests the worthy, and this is nowhere better illustrated than in the Mad Max franchise, where human beings manage to scrounge a precarious living, several years after a global catastrophe. In Fury Road, when Max is captured by Immortan Joe’s Warboys, they treat him not as a person, but as a commodity, an object. Throughout the movie, while fighting Immortan Joe, his men, and the dry terrain in which their battle takes place, Max grows and changes, reasserting his humanity and proving to others that he is not a thing.
The desert is home to the poor and isolated, with its lonely trailer parks, ghost towns, and abandoned and ramshackle houses. It’s a place where people go to get away from other human beings. Most Horror movies set in the desert, like those set in rural America, tend to focus on people as monsters, rather than creatures.
The kind of people who live in the desert are often equated with its predators, as they stalk, kill and feed on anyone they regard as intruders into their domain. They are sometimes mutated, and feral, as in the 1977 Wes Craven movie, The Hills Have Eyes, where a vacationing suburban family run afoul of a pack of cannibals who scrounge a living in the Nevada desert by eating those who pass through it. The movie pits family against family, as the Carters attempt to hold onto their humanity while fighting the inhumanity of the cannibals. And in 1987’s Near Dark, a family of vampires preys on desert wanderers, or the occasional lonely farmboy, who just happens to run afoul of the wrong girl of his dreams.
The desert is vast and unforgiving, and its silence and isolation gives birth to much quieter horrors than trucks and cannibals, as all kinds of rotten secrets hide there, as in the 1975 movie, The Devil’s Rain, which stars William Shatner, as he tries to stop the leader of a Satanic cult from retrieving an artifact of great power. In the 2005 film, Wolf Creek, a young woman must try to survive the landscape, and the serial killer she and her family encounter while camping in the Australian outback, and in the 2017 Netflix movie, Cargo, a father is suffering from a zombie bite, while stranded in the outback, and must try to get his baby to safety before he succumbs to his wounds.
Desert wanderers are not always victims or innocents, and any people one finds wandering in the desert are best left to themselves, as the 1986 movie, The Hitcher, shows. When Jim Halsey picks up a hitchhiker in the Nevada desert, he finds he has picked up a serial killer who terrorizes him for the rest of the movie. It seems the desert is as great a place to be stalked and hunted as the jungle, since that is the plot of several desert set films, from 1995’s Nature of the Beast, which stars Lance Henriksen, to the 2001 Joy Ride, starring Paul Walker, where a group of teenagers is stalked by yet another truck driver across the arid landscape.
Its best not to live in small towns situated in or near the desert, as they tend to attract monsters of all kinds including large and small desert dwelling insects. In the vast openness of the desert, creatures tend to grow in size to match, often aided by nuclear radiation. In the movie Them! from 1954, giant ants terrorize a desert town, after they are mutated by nuclear testing. A year later, another town experiences a giant spider invasion, caused by nuclear testing, in the 1955 movie Tarantula. Nuclear testing isn’t the only culprit for villainous desert bugs as they sometimes get mutated by chemical waste, such as in the 2002 horror comedy, Eight Legged Freaks, where the tiny town of Prosperity, Arizona gets attacked by the titular monsters, after a truckful of chemical waste, and a local spider farm, collide.
The smaller versions of these desert animals sometimes like to get in on the action, too, as in the 1977, Kingdom of the Spiders, starring William Shatner again, when tarantulas take their revenge against a small Arizona town that burned down one of their habitats. In the 1974 Phase IV, ants in the Arizona desert plan to take over the world, and make humans a part of their new hive mind, after a mysterious comet imbues them with greater intelligence.
Sometimes other kinds of monsters come from under the ground, as the residents of a small Nevada town discover when an earthquake releases mutated cockroaches, that have the ability to start fires, and being eaten alive was something the residents of the tiny town of Perfection did not foresee after they are attacked by a pack of massive tunnel dwelling worms, that they name Grabboids. The townsfolk have to demonstrate just how self sufficient, and clever, they can be against an underground menace that can appear anywhere, and without warning, all while trying to escape across the barren landscape, to find safety in the next town.
In fact, the desert’s isolation ensures that all kinds of weirdnesses can be born there, and reach a certain level of maturity before they’re even discovered. The strangest thing to come out of the desert to prey on mankind is the sentient tire named Robert, from the 2010 Horror Comedy, Rubber. Robert rolls through the desert landscape telekinetically exploding any humans he encounters, while a choir of onlookers give commentary.
Despite the wealth of material in this post however, movies set in the desert aren’t that frequent. It’s a difficult landscape in which to shoot a film. The temperatures and sand can work against any filmmakers so making anything in such a place is a real feat, but there are a few filmmakers who feel that the sere dry heat and isolation of the desert is worth it. The desert landscape, just like it’s snowy cousin, the tundra, is the type of landscape that is great for showing human survival at the extremes.