China Lake

This 1983, 34-minute short film comes from director Robert Harmon, on the strength of which he was given the task of helming his next project, 1986's road movie thriller The Hitcher. Harmon's first directorial project, China Lake, was intended to showcase his talents as a director, the field he hoped to move to from still and motion picture photographer. Shot over 11 days in 1981, the film experienced extended post-production, which gave rise to the two year delay in release. The finished product, viewed as an extra on The Hitcher DVD, clearly shows why he got picked up for the feature-length project.

Charles Napier, the recognisably-faced and guttural-voiced star of many an American series, plays Donnelly, a friendly-faced highway cop with an unusual vacation pastime. Ever the dedicated worker, Donnelly dons his uniform and mounts his motorcycle ready to patrol the dusty desert roads for anything untoward, even on his China Lake break. The only thing untoward out there on the road, though, is Donnelly himself, whose actions in the line of duty incorporate a rather sinister aspect. 

The build-up to The Hitcher is evident here, similarly shades of Spielberg's TV movie extraordinaire, Duel, are also apparent. Harmon works well the classic premise of authority gone to pot as the figure of abiding law calmly and quietly goes off the rails. Napier is perfectly cast as the lone and apparently sane figure who is anything but, and Harmon's direction is knowingly confident for a first-time effort. The cinematography makes good use of the oppressively barren surroundings, and shots of the physically impressive Napier exercising out in the desert undersore just what this film's about. At 34 minutes, this is a perfectly-formed mini-movie which uses to full effect the always frightening idea of carefully controlled lunacy, particularly in an authority figure. Beth Tate, who co-wrote with Harmon, went on to produce a TV movie, The China Lake Murders, based on this film in 1990 which sounds like it may well be worth hunting down for some more of Donnelly's dastardly doings.

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Buy It: (China Lake appears as an extra on the region 2 Special Edition DVD of the Hitcher released by Momentum Pictures)