Red Sands (2009)

Rating: C+

Dir: Alex Turner
Star: Shane West, Leonard Roberts, Aldis Hodge, Theo Rossi

While this may be the first horror film set against the backdrop of the War on Terror – centered, as it is, on an American patrol in the Afghan desert – its closest cousin is perhaps John Carpenter’s The Thing. Both movies are about a small group of men, trapped in a deserted location, whose number is infiltrated by a shape-shifting creature with bad intentions. That leads to paranoia, which perhaps causes as much damage as the invader itself. This all transpires when a bored member of the patrol looses a round at a statue they find, buried deep in the hills. The idol crumbles innocently enough, but when they settle in at their destination, where they’re supposed to be monitoring a highway for Al Qaeda activity (not that there’s a lot to monitor, or even much of an actual highway), things start to get weird.

They find a nearby village, deserted in haste, with only a corpse, embedded in the sand and with its eyes gouged out. Their radio is flaky, with strange sounds interfering with reception. And in the middle of a sandstorm, a woman arrives in their camp, speaking a language even their interpreter can’t understand. In other words, signs that would send any sane person running out of there, if it were possible. While the setting may be new, it’s not an original concept – The Keep comes to mind immediately – and we guessed the ending almost immediately. The execution is a mixed bag: I’m not sure the flashback structure works here, since it removed all doubt over who lived and who didn’t; doubt over that is a central pillar of good horror, where anyone can die at any time.

However, the other aspects aren’t bad: the effects are generally sparingly-used but effective when they are employed. It might have been nice to extend the paranoia over the entire movie: there’s a good chunk in the middle when you’re not sure whether there is something supernatural going on, or if the soldiers are just succumbing to the mental fatigue of being in a high-stress situation. This is when the film is at its most successful, but eventually it has to make a decision, and it gets a good deal less interesting after that point. Sure it won’t be the last horror film with this setting; it probably won’t be the worst, and certainly won’t be the best.