Dave hits the highway for one of the little-seen jewels in Craig R. Baxley’s impressive career.
Like any good horror movie, be it slasher, giallo or other, the anonymity of the assailant is always a compelling hook. Cloaked in a variety of disguises from masks and hoods, to elaborate costumes, I nevertheless insist that the armour of vehicular steel and blacked out windows has to be regarded as one of the most threatening.
It may have been Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1972) that kicked off a spate of ten-tonne-terrors, with an array of impressive imitators that drove the gamut from Joyride (2001) to Throttle (2005), but if you rewind to 1992 and flick through the pages of TV Guide, then you’ll discover a small screen secret that’s ripe for reappraisal.
With a hat-trick of beloved kick-ass spectaculars in the form of Action Jackson (1988), Dark Angel (1990) and Stone Cold (1991), you’d think that, come the early ‘90s, stuntman-turned-director Craig R. Baxley, would have had the studios knelt before him with an array of blank chequebooks. Alas, time tends to have a hazy memory with regard to box office performance, and with the latter two of Baxley’s storming trifecta pulling back barely half of their budgets, the Californian filmmaker found himself relegated into the world of television, albeit about to lens a career highlight – SILENT THUNDER.
Claude Sams (Stacy Keach) is about to tie to the knot with Vi (Lisa Banes), but his best man Paul (Thomas Wilson Brown) – who also happens to be his eighteen year-old son – is yet to show. They’ve had a fractious relationship for a number of years, but this proves to be the last straw with Claude launching an angry tirade against his wayward offspring (“Girls and partying! That’s all you care about!”). Paul storms out and heads to Las Vegas with a friend in search of work, but on the way there he’s killed on the highway by an eighteen-wheeler while changing a flat tyre. The driver doesn’t stop, and the police don’t really have any leads, so it’s left to Claude to channel all his grief into finding who killed his boy.
It’s this that provides Silent Thunder with a captivating twist on a well-worn formula. The riled vigilante. The father seeking revenge. It’s a human spin on man versus machine, and Keach has rarely been better as he teeters on the brink of madness. The man clearly has an affinity for truckers, having played Outback-hauler Patrick Quid in Richard Franklin’s immense Roadgames (1981), and just like that essential chapter of Ozploitation, Keach is able to imbue Claude Sams with a similar poise; trying to solve the crime, yet pacifying his new wife after spending weeks on the road in pursuit of the aggressor. For screenwriters Michael Blodgett and Dennis Shryack (who coincidentally penned another machine-themed screamer in The Car (1977)) though, they get the pitch just perfect.
Baxley always had an ability to turn the blandest small-screener into something remarkable – see Deep Red (1994) and Bad Day on the Block (1997) for example. Here he uses both his stunt expertise to add some fine carryall carnage as well as the fine eye of cinematographer John R. Leonetti (Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013)) to cast the unidentified wagon in the most thrilling of shadows. At times nocturnally back lit, and at others shown powering through the dusty New Mexico landscape, this creaking hunk of scrap is one of the great rigs of wrongdoing.
Silent Thunder also harbours a secret. It’s not a twist, it’s not a huge reveal – but it possesses something that elevates it from a high-end melodrama to a punch-packing slick thriller. The details of which you can discover for yourself, although I’d advise you to skirt the IMDb page for fear of spoilers. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Also known as ‘Revenge on the Road’.
USA ● 1992 ● Thriller, TVM ● 97mins
Stacy Keach, Lisa Banes, Tom Bower ● Dir. Craig R. Baxley ● Wri. Dennis Shryack, Michael Blodgett