Despite what its title and artwork may lead you to believe, Runaway Nightmare isn’t much of a horror movie. It hints at horror elements, but the dark subplot is only full realized in the final scene. Instead, the movie mashes up several genres, including comedy (which is all over the place, ranging from slapstick to dark humor, usually settling on deadpan), crime, thriller, action and melodrama.
Runaway Nightmare comes from the mind of Mike Cartel, who wrote, directed, edited and acted in the film. He stars alongside Al Valletta as Ralph and Jason, respectively, a pair of Death Valley worm farmers. While out in the desert one day, the pair spot two suspicious men burying a wooden crate. They inspect the box, only to find a woman – unconscious but still alive – inside.
As it turns out, the woman (Seeska Vandenberg) is part of an all-girl cult. She was kidnapped by the local mafia, and her fellow cult members soon come to her aid. The gun-toting chicks – lead by the exotic temptress Hesperia (Cindy Donlan) – enlist the bumbling buddies to help them retrieve a case of platinum the mafia stole from them.
That sounds like a fairly concise and easy-to-follow plot, right? Not so much on screen. While the set-up is taken care of in the first act and the plan’s execution and fall-out occur in the third, the film’s entire midsection is essentially worthless. It amounts to little more than a collection of semi-comedic, loosely-related scenes of Ralph and Jason in the compound.
Runaway Nightmare’s most enticing moment comes with the final shot. I won’t give it away, but it alludes to a horror-centric side story that’s more interesting than the main plot. Frankly, an earlier focus to this subplot would’ve given the flick some much-needed spice.
The film’s technical aspects are adequate, and Cartel and Valletta’s acting is passable, if hammy. The girls are all wooden, but their dialogue is luckily minimal. In spite of several teases, the film surprisingly avoids T&A. A product of the sex-crazed exploitation films of the time, the effort begs for gratuitous nudity, yet Cartel seems afraid to deliver.
After decades of only being available on VHS, Runaway Nightmare has finally received a release in the form a limited-edition Blu-ray and DVD combo pack. Vinegar Syndrome granted the film a 4K restoration from an original 35mm camera negative. While the outdoor locations look phenomenal, the darker interiors suffer from a lack of pure blacks; instead they flicker with grain.
The high-definition transfer also allows the viewer to see things the filmmakers never wanted them to, such as an obviously male stunt driver doubling for a female or an “invisible” wire used to move a prop. Regardless, the leap from VHS to 4K is a huge one. Fans will certainly be satisfied.
The disc features a commentary by Cartel, who is joined by Mari Cartel (his wife, who also plays one of the cult members and filled several crew positions), filmmaker/historian Howard S. Berger and Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin. The track is a great supplement to the film, as Cartel explains the story behind the story. The director owns up to the technical shortcomings, confessing he often made it up as they went along, while Mar is not afraid to dish the dirt. Also included are a handful of shot-on-video nude scenes that were added by the VHS distributor without Cartel’s consent.
Runaway Nightmare may be the only film to ever be compared to both Ed Wood and David Lynch. While the (unintentional) dreamlike quality is not a far cry from Lynch’s surreal work, it is largely the result of director Mike Cartel’s inexperience. It would be unfair to call him inept, but it’s obvious that he’s a first-time director wearing many hats. Thankfully, several of his foibles work to the film’s advantage, making Runaway Nightmare the kind of obscure oddity you have to see to believe.