DESERT SPIRITS This 35 minute mini-feature, a desert-set surreal-fest that plays liken an unholy combination of ALTERED STATES and THE EVIL DEAD, received some positive critical attention back in 1994. It does indeed cast a powerfully hallucinogenic spell, provided one isn’t too unforgiving.
DESERT SPIRITS, filmed on location in Tucson, Arizona, was the first film by the underground auteur Patrick McGuinn, of the psychosexual SOV sci fi feature SUROH: ALIEN HITCHHIKER and the short film compilation PUPPETS AND DEMONS. All three works were released on VHS through McGuinn’s company Willing Suspension Films, and all, I feel, are worth seeing.
Chris and Gordon are driving through the Arizona desert with a ton of drugs. Inevitably their piece-of-shit car breaks down. Realizing they’ll be stranded for a while, Chris and Gordon elect to climb to the top of a large rock and ingest some peyote.
The peyote initially causes projectile vomiting, after which Chris and Gordon are addressed by a taking iguana called Nori. She warns the guys that they’re facing great danger from themselves and others, and then disappears.
A man living in a nearby shack is menaced by an unseen demonic spirit that possesses his body. We learn around this point that Nori and the unseen demon are products of the spirit realm, while Chris and Gordon are stuck in the “meat world,” which is dependent on short-term creature comforts.
Following a brief scuffle with the possessed man Chris and Gordon meet back up with Nori, who informs them that they were leant a helping hand in the scuffle by a sympathetic spirit, even though spirits don’t normally intervene in the meat world. Then the peyote wears off…
This film’s budget-lite phantasmagoria, marked by dissolves, superimpositions, action played backwards and gravelly voice-over dialogue (attributed to Nori the talking iguana), may have seemed cool back in 1994, but these days it appears pretty skimpy. Luckily DESERT SPIRITS has extremely evocative black and white photography that, in concert with some well-chosen locations, really captures the spookiness and surreality of the Arizona desert.
The pic tends to be silly on occasion, and even pretentious--as when one of the protagonists calls for Nori, which segues into a sentimental song called “Nori” (recorded specially for the film by someone named Pami Shamir). Also, much of the film is quite derivative, particularly a monster POV shot lifted quite shamelessly from THE EVIL DEAD.
So DESERT SPIRITS isn’t perfect. But for those in the mood for a brief but potent dose of surreal horror it should satisfy.
Willing Suspension Films
Director/Producer/Screenwriter/Cinematographer/Editor: Patrick McGuinn
Cast: Henry McGuinn, Edward Montoya Jr, Brian McGuinn, Jill Weidman